"Watch Night" Tradition is Rooted in Abolitionists Who Awaited Word of the Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Dec. 31, 1862

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

Pictured: People look at a display of the emancipation proclamation at the National Archives in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010.
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.

Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National museum of African American history and culture, says the power of the idea of freedom to people held in bondage is behind a tradition called Watch Night.

The tradition began on Dec. 31, 1862, as abolitionists and others waited for word -- via telegraph, newspaper or word of mouth -- that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued.

"But a lot of it, at least the initial Watch Night, was really many of the free black community," she says.

The Modern Watch Night

Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., has held Watch Night services for 35 years. 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.

Hicks says that somewhere in the service - 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."

Hicks says that Watch Night is deeply rooted in the history of blacks in America - especially at a time when the community is still struggling.

Bunch says he 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.

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