How Philadelphia Will Celebrate Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve

Plus: What the movie Lincoln doesn't tell you about Abe's "Emancipation Proclamation."

On December 31, 1862, at around 7 p.m., enslaved black men, women and children unknowingly created something that cultural historians would later refer to as Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve. It was a direct result of Abraham Lincoln’s anticipated January 1, 1863 so-called Emancipation Proclamation.

For more than a century, many black churches throughout the country have held Watch Night services within about an hour of midnight on December 31st. The pastors there claim that it’s to acknowledge the hopeful Christianity of their enslaved ancestors, ancestors who were purportedly awaiting the coming of their Jesus, hence their heavenly freedom. Not! The historical truth is that they were eagerly awaiting—and constantly fighting for—their earthly freedom.

The original Watch Night, which is distinguished from Freedom’s Eve, was actually created in 1733 by the Moravians, who were a white European Protestant Christian denomination in the present-day Czech Republic. They held their first Watch Night service at the palace of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf in nearby Hernhut, Germany.

About 40 years later, in 1770, Watch Night took on a slightly different form—called Covenant Renewal Services—when it was brought to America by John Wesley, an Anglican clergyman who founded the Methodist Church, which was a revival and Protestant movement within the Church of England and which used a “methodical” approach to Christian living. They initially held their Watch Night services every month and during every full moon. These services were held right here in Philly at Old St. George’s Methodist Church at 235 North 4th Street.

When these white European Moravians and these white American Methodists held their separate formal services on December 31st, they did so in order to “watch over and meditate on” their past to determine if they would be ready for the possible coming of their god in the new year.

When enslaved black folks held their informal services on plantations and in cabins on December 31, 1862, they did so because they had heard rumors about Lincoln’s so-called Emancipation Proclamation, which had been first publicized in September that year, and was set to go into effect on January 1, 1863. I write the “so-called” Emancipation Proclamation because it proclaimed freedom only for those enslaved in 10 confederate states, but not in five other Southern slave states or in Northern slave states such as New Jersey and Delaware.

Moreover, it was not designed to actually emancipate anyone. Instead, it was simply a political tool designed to deplete the South of its most valuable resource, which just happened to be black people held in bondage. In the words of noted Civil War expert Gary Gallagher, “Without enslaved labor, there was no way the Confederacy could mobilize its manpower and overcome the Union.” In other words, beat the carpenter by taking his tools. And Abe honestly didn’t give a shit about those tools. He explained his views on September 18, 1858 during a debate when he said “I am not in favor of bringing about … social and political equality of the black and white races … (or) of making voters or jurors of negroes … (or) of qualifying them to hold office … (or) to (allow them to) intermarry with white people … ”

But enough about Abe Lincoln.

The key factor that distinguishes these white Watch Nights, meaning the 1733 European version and the 1770 American version, from the 1862 black version is that the black version was also called Freedom’s Eve. In other words, Watch Night for white people meant “watching” for the coming of their god, but Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve for black people meant “watching” for the coming of their freedom. For black people, Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve was not religious but spiritual, and not congregational but cultural.

This cultural spirit can be found throughout Philadelphia history, in the founding of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society—this land’s first abolitionist organization—at Front and Chestnut in 1775; in the do-for-self mentality of the Free African Society at Sixth and Lombard in 1787; in the courage of twentysomething Oney Judge and 43-year-old Hercules, who escaped the clutches of President George Washington after having been transported in 1790 to America’s first “White House” at Sixth and Market; and in the dedication of the activist Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church at 419 South Sixth Street in 1794. It was also manifested in the formation of Lucretia Mott’s Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society at Fifth and Arch in 1833; in the creation of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society at 107 North Fifth in 1838; in the leadership of William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad, who served as chair of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society at 244 South 12th in 1852;  and in the relentlessness of Robert Purvis, who lived at 1601 Mount Vernon and presided over the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1845. It was at the December 2, 1859 Martyr Day event for John Brown at the National Hall at 1222 Market that Purvis referred to Brown as “the Jesus of the 19th century,” immediately after which the mourners there were attacked and chased away by none other than Philly cops. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

And Watch Night/Freedom Eve’s connection was additionally manifested in the establishment of the Union League at 140 South Broad in 1862 to support the North’s war efforts. By the way, it was Union League members, and Philadelphia Vigilance Committee members including William Still, who “received” Henry Box Brown in the city. Brown was the man who had escaped slavery in Virginia by mailing himself to Philly inside a sealed wooden crate in 1849 and traveled 27 hours—often upside down and thrown around—on a wagon, a train and a boat. This is what Watch Night/Freedom’s Eve is truly all about.

Enslaved men, women, boys and girls began to gather at 7 p.m. on December 31, 1862 to await their freedom. That is why, in their honor exactly 150 years later, members of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) and many other black Philadelphians will gather at 7 p.m. on December 31, 2012 at the Philadelphia headquarters of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association at 1609 Cecil B. Moore Avenue. For more info, visit our website or call 215-552-8751.