History
9:20 am
Sat December 29, 2012

'Watch Nights,' A New Year's Celebration Of Emancipation

Originally published on Sat December 29, 2012 6:16 pm

The National Archives is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by putting the original document on display over New Year's weekend.

The institution is also hosting a series of programs, including a "Watch Night" on New Year's Eve, following a tradition dating back to 1862.

The first Watch Night was Dec. 31, 1862, as abolitionists and others waited for word — via telegraph, newspaper or word of mouth — that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued.

"A lot of it, at least the initial Watch Night, was really many of the free black community," says Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Yet for a people largely held in bondage, freedom is a powerful idea — and that's what the Watch Night tradition embodies.

Tradition Endures

Bunch smiles when people talk about how they're going to stay up for the New Year "because they are celebrating the freedom of African-Americans," he says.

In Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Baptist Church has held its own Watch Night services for 35 years. The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. says this year's service will begin with praise, testimony and music.

"You might hear an anthem, you might hear a spiritual [or] you might hear a gospel," Hicks says.

At midnight, the congregation will pray the old year out and the new year in. As Watch Night is deeply rooted in the history of blacks in America, Hicks says, it's especially relevant at a time when the community is still struggling.

Somewhere in the service — he says he hasn't made up his mind just when yet — there will be a sermon "designed to address the progressive and regressive moves we have been through as a people."

What The Proclamation Actually Did

Reginald Washington, African-American records specialist at the National Archives, says the Emancipation Proclamation didn't immediately free any slave.

Washington says the proclamation applied only to areas where the federal government had no control or ability to enforce its provisions. The document that actually freed the slaves was the 13th Amendment.

The proclamation, however, changed the character of the conflict from a war to preserve the union to a war for human liberation. Washington says when President Lincoln started to sign it, he hesitated.

"His hand started shaking," Washington says. "He didn't want to sign it so someone would think he had second thoughts about it."

The president collected himself and then signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 — and freedom was declared.

The document was reproduced widely. "Several publishers published small versions ... pocket versions of the Emancipation Proclamation to be given to soldiers and officers," Bunch says. He says the tiny documents were read to slaves.

"There are wonderful reminiscences by the enslaved of saying, 'I was on Master Johnson's plantation and a soldier came and he took out a little piece of paper and suddenly said we were free,' " he says.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The National Archives is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by putting the original document on display this weekend. NPR's Allison Keyes tells us the institution will also hold a series of programs including a Watch Night on New Year's Eve, following a tradition dating back to December 31, 1862.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Former slave Charlie Smith remembers when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

CHARLIE SMITH: I was 21 years old when freedom was declared.

KEYES: Smith was 119 years old when that interview was done for a USDA radio program more than five decades ago. He said that historic day didn't make an immediate difference to his life at the Smith family ranch in Texas. Smith said he continued to stay on the ranch.

SMITH: I stayed right here in the house.

KEYES: In fact, National Archives African-American records specialist Reginald Washington explains.

REGINALD WASHINGTON: The Emancipation Proclamation didn't immediately free any slave.

KEYES: Washington says the proclamation only applied to areas where the federal government had no control or ability to enforce its provisions. The document that actually freed the slaves was the 13th amendment. But the proclamation changed the character of the conflict - from a war to preserve the union to a war for human liberation. When President Lincoln started to sign it, he hesitated because...

WASHINGTON: His hand started shaking. So, he didn't want to sign it so someone would think that he had second thoughts about it.

KEYES: The president collected himself, then signed.

LONNIE BUNCH: Several publishers published small versions - pocket versions of the Emancipation Proclamation to be given to soldiers and officers.

KEYES: Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, says the tiny documents were read to slaves.

BUNCH: And there are wonderful reminiscences by the enslaved of saying I was on Master Johnson's plantation and a Yankee soldier came, and he took out a little piece of paper and suddenly said we were free.

KEYES: Bunch says the power of the idea of freedom to people held in bondage is behind a tradition called Watch Night. It began December 31, 1862 as abolitionists and others waited for word, via telegraph, newspaper or word of mouth, that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued.

BUNCH: But a lot of it, at least the initial Watch Night, was really many of the free black community.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. has held Watch Night services for 35 years. The pastor, H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., says this year's will begin with praise, testimony and music.

H. BEECHER HICKS, JR.: You might hear an anthem, you might hear a spiritual, you might hear a gospel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: And he says somewhere in the service - he hasn't made up his mind just when yet...

HICKS: There will be a sermon, which is designed to address the progressive and sometimes the regressive moves that we have been through as a people.

KEYES: Hicks says at midnight, the congregation will pray the old year out and the new year in. He says Watch Night is deeply rooted in the history of blacks in America, especially at a time when the community is still struggling. The Smithsonian's Lonnie Bunch says he smiles when people talk about how they're going to stay up for the new year.

BUNCH: Because they are celebrating the freedom of African-Americans.

KEYES: The Emancipation Proclamation will be on display at the National Archives from December 30th through January 1st. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.