Watchman, watchman please tell me the hour of the night!

Watchman, watchman please tell me the hour of the night!

By: Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum

I wish you well for Watch Night 2021.

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order declaring enslaved people in rebelling Confederate States legally free. However, that order – known today as the Emancipation Proclamation – did not take effect immediately. In fact, the decree was not set to take effect for three months, not until midnight as the start of the new year.

So, the people knew change was coming. The people hoped freedom would come with it.

And they waited.

I can only imagine that some waited with joy, others with skepticism. We know some waited with fear, others with anger. But all waited with an extraordinary sense of anticipation. Change was coming.

On the eve of the proclamation, December 31, 1862, African Americans across the country gathered to keep vigil, waiting for news that the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect. In many places, it remained illegal for black people to gather, even for religious observances. Still, there were gatherings in churches and praise houses, perhaps even more gathered in secret.

In places where they could sing out and shout, stomp and pray in fervor for freedom, African Americans did. In places where joyful, anticipatory noise could be made or even where voices could safely whisper, you might have heard what is now a traditional call in some Watch Night Services:

Watchman, watchman please tell me the hour of the night!
It is two minutes to midnight.

Watchman, watchman please tell me the hour of the night!
It is one minute before the new year.

Watchman, watchman please tell me the hour of the night!
It is now midnight, freedom has come!

These were the tense beginnings of the African American religious tradition of Watch Night.

Like all traditions, there are nuances and different ways of celebrating Watch Night within the African American tradition – some more spiritual, some more cultural. There are various levels of participation across the different religious denominations within the African American community. I was raised in predominantly black churches most of my life but wasn’t introduced to Watch Night until my 20s, while attending service with a friend.

In the current climate of reclaiming and renewing historical context to some of our countries most important stories, Watch Night is at the top of my list.

More than a century and a half ago, African Americans noted New Year’s Eve as a day to reflect on freedom and faith, to celebrate community and strength, and to know that the destruction of slavery was a small, but mighty step, on the long journey toward inclusion and equity in the nation their labor had built.

I celebrate this history, the story of that watchful night, because the echoes of its promises and its responsibilities still reverberate today.

And I wish you well for this year’s Watch Night. May your 2021 close with the promise of progress and resilience of hope in the New Year.

Commentary by Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum.

Image credit: Carte de visite, 1863, held in the Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs at the Library of Congress

The International African American Museum will be participating in Charleston’s Emancipation Proclamation Day Parade on January 1, 2022. Would you like to join us? 

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