One hundred and fifty-seven years ago tonight, the enslaved peoples of America and their supporters were huddled together, praying for their freedom. That historic moment has come to be known as ‘Watch Night.’
On that night, December 31, 1862, they were awaiting word that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued and signed by then-president Abraham Lincoln.
And, primarily, they were in the church.
Though it was signed the next day, the Proclamation still didn’t immediately free any slave—the 13th Amendment would do that about three years later—but those downtrodden people were on watch, praying and hoping for change.
That original African-American ‘watch night’ continues tonight, 157 years later, as a tradition of the historic black church across the United States and here in Palm Beach County (PBC).
Many Christian denominations have watch nights, or vigil services. United Methodists, for example, began observing New Year’s Eve watch nights in this country in 1770–a practice all but abandoned today — and Catholics, most notably, “watch” for the coming of the Messiah on Christmas Eve.
But for African-Americans, the tradition is inextricably tied to their own history in this country–even if today’s community isn’t huddled in fear of what the next day, and New Year, might bring.
Rather, today, it’s about celebration, family and peace. There are Watch Night events at many churches in PBC. Here’s a few:
Back on December 31, 2000, an article was published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel about Watch Nights and it was written by cocowire’s team lead, Marian Dozier. Read the article here—including a quote from then-Bishop Thomas A. Masters, who would become Mayor of Riviera Beach seven years later!