Exactly 155 years ago on Dec. 31, 1862 at around 7 p.m., enslaved Black men, women, and children unknowingly created something that historians would later refer to as Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve. It was our enslaved ancestors’ reaction to Abraham Lincoln’s anticipated Jan. 1, 1863 so-called Emancipation Proclamation.
For more than a century and a half, many Black churches throughout the country have held Watch Night services within about an hour of midnight on Dec. 31. The pastors there claim it’s to acknowledge the hopeful Christianity of their enslaved ancestors, ancestors who were purportedly awaiting the coming of their Jesus, hence their heavenly freedom. But those pastors were — and many of today’s pastors still are — just plain wrong about the real meaning of Watch Night.
The truth is that our enslaved ancestors weren’t awaiting heavenly Jesus, which they already had. Instead, they were awaiting earthly freedom, which they didn’t have.
Here’s the historical background of that truth. The original Watch Night, which is distinguished from Freedom’s Eve, was created in 1733 by the Moravians, who were a white European Protestant Christian denomination in present day Czech Republic (in what was then called Moravia). They held their first Watch Night service at the palace of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in nearby Hernhut, Germany.
About 40 years later in 1770, Watch Night took on a slightly different form, called Covenant Renewal Services, when it was brought to America by John Wesley. He was the Anglican clergyman who founded the Methodist Church, which was a revival and Protestant movement within the Church of England and which used a “methodical” approach to Christian living. Those Methodists initially held their Watch Night services every month and during every full moon. These services took place in Philly at Old St. George’s Methodist Church at 235 North Fourth Street.
When these white European Moravians and these white American Methodists held their separate formal services on Dec. 31, they did so in order to “watch over and meditate on” their past to determine if they would be ready for the possible coming of their god in the new year.
On the other hand, when enslaved Blacks held their informal services on plantations and in cabins on Dec. 31, 1862, they did so because they had heard rumors about Lincoln’s so-called Emancipation Proclamation, which had been publicized on Sept. 22, 1862 but was to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
It’s the so-called Emancipation Proclamation because it proclaimed freedom only for those enslaved in ten confederate states but not in five other southern slave states or in northern slave states such as New Jersey and Delaware.
Moreover, it was not designed to actually emancipate anyone. Instead, it was simply a political tool designed to deplete the South of its most valuable resource, which just happened to be enslaved Blacks. In the words of noted Civil War expert Dr. Gary Gallagher, “Without enslaved labor, there was no way the Confederacy could mobilize its manpower and overcome the Union.” In other words, beat the carpenter by taking his tools. And Abe honestly didn’t give a damn about those human tools. He explained his views on Sept. 18, 1858 during a debate when he said “I am not in favor of bringing about… social and political equality of the Black and white races… (or) of making voters or jurors of negroes… (or) of qualifying them to hold office… (or) to (allow them to) intermarry with white people….” But enough about Lincoln. Let’s get back to Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve.
The key factor that distinguishes white Watch Nights, meaning the 1733 European version and the 1770 American version, from the 1862 Black version is that the Black version was also called Freedom’s Eve. For whites, Watch Night meant “watching” for the coming of their god. But for Blacks, Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve meant “watching” for the coming of their freedom. Stated differently, Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve for Blacks was not religious but spiritual and not congregational but cultural.
Shortly after the brutal backbreaking plantation labor ended for the day, which was always around 7 p.m., enslaved Blacks across the South began gathering in shack-like cabins on Dec. 31, 1862 to await their freedom. Their descendants — meaning you and me — reaped the benefits of their waiting, but more important of their courage, their heroism, their struggles, their battles, and especially their victories in the form of the Civil War in May 1865 and the Thirteenth Amendment (slavery abolition) in December 1865 and also reaped the benefits of the groundwork they laid for later victories in the form of the Fourteenth Amendment (citizenship) in 1868, the Fifteenth Amendment (voting rights for Black men) in 1870, the Civil Rights Act (in 1964), and the Voting Rights Act (in 1965).
Because of what our relentlessly undaunted ancestors did for us all, the members of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) and many other Black folks — including you — will gather at ATAC’s tenth annual free Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve remembrance event at 7 p.m. on Dec. 31 at Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association building at 1609 Cecil B. Moore Avenue. For more info, call ATAC at (215) 552-8751.
And remember, “Never forget. Always avenge.”
The spirit often moves me to end my weekly columns, whenever appropriate, with a particular inspirational quote from one of the greatest rappers in Hip Hop history. In his song entitled “1-9-9-9,” Common said and I’m now saying “Check it. It’s like I’m fightin’ for freedom, writin’ for freedom.... My ancestors, when I’m writin’ I see ‘em and talk with ‘em. Hoping in the promised land I can walk with ‘em.”