Watch Night and Emancipation Day

I did not understand their true meaning until years later.

Robert Zachary
Robert Zachary
by Robert Zachary –

When I was a boy growing up in Anniston, Alabama, the first day of the year was a very sacred and special day.

As far back as I can remember, I heard stories and sensed excitement about the coming Watch Night.

During my boyhood, my mother was a member of this little Pentecostal Holiness Church right up above our house. She would take me and my sisters to church for the Watch Night service, which would start at around 9 p.m. and end close to the stroke of midnight. They had singing, praying, testimonies, a New Year’s resolution service, communion, and washing of feet. It was a grand affair, especially for us children. But I did not understand the true meaning until years later.

When I was around ten or eleven, somebody discovered my singing voice, and I was ushered into a new (for me) arena of singing at different churches. Now, I had no idea what Watch Night was really about. But fortunately, my aunt Verna Mae (along with my sister Mary) was an organist. In fact, she was among the first Black organists in Anniston who were asked to play noon-time hymns on the famous pipe organ at the all-white Grace Episcopal Church downtown.

One year, my aunt and my sister arranged for me to sing at the Emancipation Day service at Gaines Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The service was held on New Year’s Day at 12 o’clock noon, and the place was nearly full. And after that first year, until I went off to college, it remained my esteemed responsibility every New Year’s Day to sing on Emancipation Day at some church in my city.

Over the years of attending these Emancipation Day Services, I began to put together the real meaning of both Watch Night and Emancipation Services and how they embodied the same meaning. The only difference, to let my aunt Verna Mac explain it, was that “Holy Rollers mostly have Watch Night and our more sophisticated Black churches have Emancipation service.”

Praying during the Watch Night service.
Praying and singing during the Watch Night service, we wait for the clock to strike twelve midnight—for Freedom.

Every Emancipation Day Service was beautifully unique. The old “Negro Spirituals” reigned in these services, from beginning to the very end. In between the spirituals, you received quite a live lesson on your history as an African American and the real, refined people we were. There were of course references to enslavement, but the greater emphasis was on how we got over, how far we had come already as a people, the many achievements and contributions we had made, and, especially, on our determination for the future to overcome!

The service inevitably climaxed with a fiery speaker who, usually, started again with the history of enslavement and our freedom therefrom. The minister explained about the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and how Abraham Lincoln wrote it about six months before it was issued, on New Year’s Day, 1863. It was a story about how our fearless ancestors stayed up watching the clocks wherever they were over the South, waiting for the clock to strike twelve midnight—for Freedom!

So when I started college in Atlanta, every year it was the same. The Black churches, especially around the Atlanta University complex, had big Emancipation Day services and invited big-name people as speakers: Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Dr. Lerrone Bennet, Maya Angelou, and many others. In the mid-1980s, it was an unbelievable honor to be chosen as speaker at an Emancipation Service back in my hometown.

In later years the public learned how it took almost six months, until June 19, for the news of our emancipation to reach Galveston, TX, and parts of Oklahoma. And now we celebrate Juneteenth as a national holiday, based on that history—our history—America’s African American history. But long before Juneteenth was widely known, we have gathered on New Year’s Eve in anticipation of that eventful New Year’s Day, 1863. Over the decades Watch Night has caught on as a national phenomenon (similar to homecoming, which also started in the Black Church and was adopted by colleges and other institutions. But that’s another column!).

Here and now, speaking about this history, this is where it becomes rather dear to me. Being in the Asheville/WNC area for a number of years, I and others have brought forth the subject, “Where is Emancipation Day Service?”

Though we continue the tradition of Watch Night, Emancipation Day is not honored as it should be. We wholeheartedly think it is important to keep and embrace all our traditions instead of losing them.

Honoring and celebrating the glorious, joyful triumph of our people is never enough. Our memories become our history, and the history sustains us in strength. And this is why I am asking the question now and putting forth the call: “Can we resurrect the spirit of Emancipation here in the Asheville Area?”

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