Watch Night Freedom's Eve

November 18, 6:30pm to 8:00PM, Arts Center A13

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This historical reenactment will revisit “Watch Night” of December 31, 1862 – the night before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that would declare the end of slavery in the eleven states that had seceded from the Union. Scenes will unfold at a “Hush Harbor” near a Southern plantation and in Rochester’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. The local performers are from AKWAABA: the Heritage Associates, living history performers featuring Nazareth’s very own visiting community scholar, Dr. David Anderson.


The Watch Night service can be traced back to gatherings also known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On that night, black slaves and free blacks came together in churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. At the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863; all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as many people fell to their knees and thanked God." Schomburg Report.

WATCH NIGHT, is derived from ancient religious practices, whereby adherents periodically paused to take stock of their endeavors over and against what was prescribed in religious doctrines. European worshippers in Christian denominations (particularly, Moravians and Methodists) brought Watch Night practices with them to Colonial America.


Enslaved Africans adapted Watch Night to the effort to maintain their sense of human-ess that enslavement sought to deprive them of. By mid-nineteenth century, Watch Night was heavily associated with the quest for freedom. That quest was inextricably bound to the real fear that one’s kin could be sold away. On a more positive note, separation (hopefully, short-lived) resulted from escape to freedom in Canada. Both possibilities were serious agenda items at end-of-year secret gatherings, of the enslaved, when plantation owners were somewhat distracted by celebration of Christian holidays. Moreover, December 31, 1862, Watch Night in the few African American Christian churches, also was regarded as “Freedom’s Eve.”


Sponsored by the Institute for Pluralism and the Center for Spirituality