There is a song entitled “What Are You Doing on New Year’s Eve” made popular by the recently deceased jazz singer Nancy Wilson. The presumption is that people will be spending New Year’s Eve at one social event or another. As New Year’s Eve for 2019 approaches I want to offer an answer to the question of “What Are You Doing on New Year’s Eve.”
Within the African American community there is an annual observance called a Watch Night Service. This service that runs from 10:30 PM until 12 AM on New Year’s Day dates back to December 31, 1862. That was the night before the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln was to take effect. Beginning on January 1,1863 the brutal practice of chattel slavery that kept four million African Americans in bondage would be declared illegal. It cannot be forgotten that the trans-Atlantic slavery trade began in this country in the year of 1619. The U. S. Constitution allowed slavery to continue in this country even after the nation had fought and won a war to win freedom for white citizens from the British. While slavery did not officially end until 1865 with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, a major blow against slavery came with the Emancipation Proclamation that declared that slavery “was illegal in those states that were in rebellion against the United States”. Few if any slaveholders complied with the Proclamation precisely because they were residing in the Confederate States of America that had seceded from the Union. Abraham Lincoln was not their president and the United States was not their country. Moreover, slavery was allowed to continue in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia. The Emancipation Proclamation did not factually result in the immediate release of many slaves. Slaves began to enjoy freedom as the Union army moved through the South and eventually forced the Confederacy to surrender. However, after 224 years of slavery, the idea that freedom was on the horizon with the full support of the President of the United States, caused African Americans to gather in churches across the country on New Year’s Day 1863 to pray and thank God for the change that was about to come.
What Are You Doing on New Year’s Eve? Spend an hour or two at a local church to thank God for a transformative moment in American history. While you are at it, think about how our country overcame one of the darkest chapters in history. We overcame centuries of slavery in a country based on the claim that “all men are created equal.” Perhaps we can then commit and recommit ourselves to making sure that in 2019 all people will be treated equally. That would be a great way to begin the New Year!
Marvin A. McMickle, Ph.D. is the President and Professor of African American Religious Studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School