Watch Night Services

Kristeen Irigoyen-Hernandez aka Lady2Soothe


The Watch Night Services in Black communities celebrated today can be traced back to gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On that night, free and freed Blacks living in the Union States came together gathering at churches, private homes, and other safe spaces, while thousands of their enslaved Black sisters and brothers stood, knelt and prayed on plantations anxiously awaiting for President Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation into law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, January 1, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts, and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God.

It’s been 156 years since the first Freedom’s Eve and Black folks have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing them safely through another year. African American Christians continue the faith tradition of their enslaved ancestors and will gather, Dec. 31, 2018, to celebrate they are the survivors of a people who were defined in the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths human, shackled in chains and denied the right to vote. Most people were never taught the African American history of Watch Night, but tradition still brings Blacks together to celebrate “how we got over.”

Harper’s Weekly, 21 February 1862. Source: While slavery was far from dead in the United States in early 1863, the signs increasingly were not good for its long-term survival.

Today, Lincoln is remembered as “The Great Emancipator,” but the story of emancipation is complex and contradictory, and the question of how we choose to commemorate this anniversary can be touchy. The purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation was to create confusion and disruption among the Confederate forces. The Emancipation Proclamation only granted freedom to those slaves residing in the Confederate States and not the slaves residing in the Union States as Lincoln didn’t have any jurisdiction over slaves residing in Confederate States because these states had seceded from the United States, ergo, the Civil War, therefore, he did not have the authority to emancipate slaves in the Confederacy, in essence, the Emancipation Proclamation was a worthless document.

In actuality, Lincoln was just as racist as the rest of the peers of his era. This is evidenced by his saying the following at the Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois.

(The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, pp. 145-146)

EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

It’s said the Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves. In a way, this is true. The Emancipation Proclamation actually freed few people. The proclamation only applied to the Confederate States, as an act to seize enemy resources. By freeing slaves in the Confederacy, Lincoln was actually freeing people he did not directly control as a military measure which was a result of Union battlefield losses by July 1862, the President decided emancipation was a military necessity and ordered slaves freed in areas which were in rebellion against the U.S., declaring the military would enforce their freedom, and receive former slaves into the U.S. military, however it didn’t apply to border slave states like Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, all of which had remained loyal to the Union.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, the Southern cause was now the defense of slavery. The proclamation was a shrewd maneuver by Lincoln to brand the Confederate States as a slave nation and render foreign aid impossible because the Proclamation only applied to the ten states still in rebellion in 1863, and thus did not cover the nearly 500,000 slaves in the slave-holding border states.

The Thirteenth Amendment (Amendment XIII) to the United States Constitution actually abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865.