Nation set to celebrate 150 years of Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln’s historic document marked by ‘Watch Night’ tradition

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comDecember 29, 2012 

Historians say it was a crisp, bright day on Jan. 1, 1863, in the nation’s capital where President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a five-page document that declared any slaves in states or part of states in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thence forward and forever free.”

Lincoln’s hands shook so violently that at first he could not sign the document. Afterward, he told a friend, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do signing this paper.”

The ringing of church bells and tears of joy accompanied that first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

African-American churches across the Triangle will celebrate with the rest of the nation the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation during their annual Watch Night services on News Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Watch Night has become an annual event for many African-American congregations, but for some churches the focus over the years has veered away from celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation and has instead centered on church members renewing and reaffirming their faith, with music, testimonies and prayer leading up to midnight and the beginning of the New Year.

The website of the venerable White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, for example, encouraged its members to heed the words of the Prophet Ezekiel for the coming year: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.”

“It’s a time when the people in the congregation get to express themselves through songs from the choir, testimonies about what God has done for them this year and how they are looking forward to next year,” William Daye, pastor of the Peace Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, said Saturday.

“We have a nice closing prayer as the clock strikes midnight.”

Daye was not alone among African-American clergy in the Triangle when he admitted that he did not know that Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation being made public.

Still, he had already invited a speaker from New Jersey to address his congregation during a Tuesday morning Emancipation Service.

“He is from Lincoln Park,” Daye said. “I don’t know exactly what he will be talking about, but he will lift (the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) up for sure. That will be the focus for that day.”

Patrick Wooden, pastor at the Upper Room Church of God in Christ in Raleigh, also said he did not realize that Tuesday was the document’s 150th anniversary. Still, he appreciated the historical significance of the document and the anniversary.

“I would love to have it read at my church,” he said.

Phillip Walker, pastor of Mt. Pleasant Worship & Outreach Center in Raleigh, said Watch Night services with his congregation normally sets the tone for the entire year.

“We will acknowledge the anniversary and say what it means, although many of us already know what it means and have a moment of reflection,” Walker said.

The nationwide New Year’s observations of the anniversary includes a three-day event that begins Sunday at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where the landmark document is housed.

The Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Along with public viewings of the original document, the National Archives will play host to inspirational music, dramatic re-enactments and other family activities and entertainment.

The first Watch Night service was held Dec. 31, 1862, as free blacks, abolitionists and others awaited word that the president had issued the proclamation.

Observers were aware of the document because Lincoln had composed a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation 100 days earlier.

The Associated Press noted that Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, after the Battle of Antietam, announcing that if rebel states did not cease fighting and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious states or parts of states would be declared free from that date forward.

One archivist noted that the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave because Lincoln didn’t have the power to enforce the declaration in the Confederacy.

Still, many slaves had already been freeing themselves, and the document gave them protection.

Walker said he was surprised that there was not a bigger build up of the anniversary.

“Especially with movie ‘Lincoln’ coming out,” he said.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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