by Clarence E. Glover Jr.
This year as in years past, many African-American churches will convene on December 31, 2011, New Year’s Eve, for what has become known as “Watch Night Services.” While traditionally observed by African-Americans, Watch Night Services originated in the 1800’s with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It was to be a time when members would gather and recommit their lives to the faith as they entered a new year, sometimes called Covenant Renewal service.
For enslaved Africans, however, the gathering took on different meanings. First, for plantation owners this was a time for them to take stock of their property. They also paid off debts at the beginning of the new year. Because Africans were considered property, December 31st would be the last time many of them would see their family or friends, so they gathered one last time in church before they were separated from each other for life.
Secondly, Watch Night took on another meaning during the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Senator Charles Sumner, Senator Thaddeus Stevens and other abolitionists worked to encourage President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation to free enslaved Africans in the Confederate states that rebelled against the Union. On that night, December 31, 1862, many enslaved African men and women and their families gathered to hear “the word.” Then at midnight in many African-American churches, “the word” came that President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. After midnight, African men and women, who along with their ancestors had experienced over 244 years of slavery in America, began thanking God for the dawn of freedom.
The next day, January 1, 1863, became known as “Jubilee Day” to the newly freed African men, women and children. They enjoyed a freedom feast of collard greens, yams, black-eyed peas, roasted meats pies and cakes. They sang songs and played games of all kind as they reminisced on slavery’s past and mused on freedom’s future.
Today, remarkably few African-American churches and families know the history of “Watch Freedom Night” (Freedom’s Eve) December 31st and “Jubilee Day” January 1st. While many celebrate Juneteenth, June 19th, 1865, the date the announcement of the Emancipation reached enslaved Africans in Texas, December 31st and January 1st should also stand as significant holy-days in the lives of African-Americans and all Americans. These two days are as significant as the 4th of July, in that they represent America’s journey to freedom for all of her citizens.
As we prepare to celebrate the 149th Watch Freedom Eve this year and Jubilee Day next year, we invite all Americans to begin the Sankofa Journey – reaching back to move forward — to the 150th Anniversary of “Watch Freedom Eve 2012 and Jubilee Day 2013. We should share this history in our homes, churches and schools to educate and enlighten families and friends about the importance of this period in American history. Then get involved by taking action to ensure the promises of continued freedom and justice for all citizens in the future.
As America celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, we should pause to give new meaning to these holy-days – Freedom’s Eve and Jubilee Day – in the lives of African-Americans and all Americans.
If you wish to know more about Watch Freedom Eve and Jubilee Day and how to celebrate them, contact Sankofa Education Services. Let us know if you would like to be on the 150th Anniversary Watch Freedom Eve/Jubilee Day Celebration Committee.
Clarence E. Glover, Jr., CEO, Sankofa Education Services, 214-393-1861 or firstname.lastname@example.org