This New Year’s Eve marks the 159th anniversary of Freedom’s Eve, a famous date in African-American history when millions of people anxiously awaited the announcement that they had at last been loosed from bondage.
On Dec. 31, 1862, American slaves were waiting for for the clock to strike midnight in order to seize the promise of freedom outlined in the Emancipation Proclamation. Only 3.1 million of the country’s four million slaves were declared free from the bondage of oppression with the issuance of the decree. The soon-to-be freed slaves stayed awake all night and watched the darkness turn into a new dawn while waiting for the news of their freedom. Since then, the tradition of celebrating Freedom’s Eve has been a custom and cultural ritual.
Freedom’s Eve was inspired by the Watch Night service tradition. This event can be traced back to the Moravians, a Christian denomination in the Czech Republic during the mid-1700s. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, adopted the practice and began incorporating Watch Night services into the Methodist tradition.
In 1770, the first Watch Night was held in America at the St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Two slaves, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were a part of the congregation and, later, would leave the church after experiencing discriminaiton and founded the African Methodist Episcopal church (A.M.E.). The A.M.E. Church tradition subsequently inspired the celebration of Freedom’s Eve as Black persons gathered together to recognize the progression of freedom’s journey.
Frederick Douglass was an A.M.E. member and once said of Freedom’s Eve: “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” For African-Americans, the prayers of their ancestors finally came to fruition as they reached towards a future of freedom and liberty.
Freedom’s Eve was a call to action. It was a moral imperative to fight for the full realization of freedom for Black men and women united in the struggle for liberty. The tradition is a symbol of not only the struggle for freedom from slavery, but also a mark of tenacious courage. Freedom’s Eve connects history with the present since it informs Black America of the present challenge to “secure the blessings of liberty” for future generations.
Less than a decade after the first Freedom’s Eve celebration, many Blacks had become resistant to the idea. They wanted to distance themselves from the more painful and degrading aspect of a collective past. They felt that celebrating emancipation kept the memory of slavery alive. After 1870—and continuing into the 20th Century—many in the Black middle class advocated halting Freedom’s Eve commemorations.
In 1876, Theophilus G. Steward, an A.M.E. minister, insisted that “Blacks would never unite behind a ‘common history’ because the race’s narrative was centered on slavery and “slave history is no history” he professed.
Steward penned a series of essays about Blacks in New York City in explaining that it was difficult “to find a colored man even from the South who will acknowledge that he actually passed through the hardships of slavery…Men do not like to be refered to slavery now.”
Many contemporary African-Americans may not feel the need to continue “watching” for freedom. Some contend that Blacks are far removed from the evil days of slavery. Dr. Martin Luther King said more than a half-century ago “the Negro is still not free,” yet there has been undeniable progress—albeit it slow and painstaking—made in the struggle for liberty and equality.
African-Americans traditionally have gathered in churches on New Years Eve. It’s an opportunity to praise God for bringing them safely through the year in recounting the celebratory theme of “how we got over.”
The service usually begins anywhere from 7 to 10 p.m. and ends at midnight with the entrance of the New Year. Over time, there have been instances where clergy in mainline denominations questioned the propriety of linking religious services with a secular holiday like New Year’s Day. Those who faithfully observe the service insist that the importance of overcoming past injustice becomes a transformational experience that resounds in the service’s singing and praise.
Many African-Americans probably do not specifically celebrate Freedoim’s Eve per se in the sense of reflecting on their ancestor’s freedom from slavery. Yet, the direct link between Freedom’s Eve celebrations and Watch Night undoubtedly has both explicit and implicit impact on many Black Christians’ observance of the tradition.
Some Black worship leaders fully honor the Freedom’s Eve tradition in its most sympathetic form. Many Black Christians from various denominations including Methodist, Baptist and Pentecostal churches implicitly reflect on the spirit of Freedom’s Eve celebrations by bringing in the New Year with jubilation and praise, praying and shouting. They thank God for seeing them through another year as they anticipate the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams and, most of all, God’s promises in the New Year.
There are traditional hymns that African-Americans sing in reflecting how God has been and remains to be their source of hope in the freedom struggle. “We’ve Come This Far By Faith” is a congregational hymn that can encourage Black persons to cogitate how far they have come in America through slavery; the Black Codes; the Jim Crow era; the Civil Rghts Movement; the election of President Barack Obama; and beyond.
“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is an English hymn written by Isaac Watts. The song paraphrases Psalm 90, a prayer of Moses. Here, Moses distinguishes the eternal nature of God from the finite nature of human beings. Moses muses how God has been a dwelling place and source of refuge for the children of Israel–and for these purposes, the Black children of America.
As African-Americans ring in the New Year, the hymns are said to inspire Black Christians to ruminate how God has been their sustaining power and source of security throughout the ages, their “help” in ages past,” and their “hope for the year to come.”
Today, there are many ways to honor the anniversary of Freedom’s Eve. Start by sharing the story of Freedom’s Eve with family, friends and youth in the community. It is an opportunity to reclaim history with a sense of great pride in shining a light on and proclaiming victory over the darkness of slavery.