Many of us are not familiar with the celebration called “Watch Night.” I was not aware of it, but it was brought to my attention by a friend at Lake Wateree. It actually takes place on New Year’s Eve, but since that has passed and since February is Black History Month, I thought it might be a good time to learn about this event.
It is said to have started with a church service where blacks awaited the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Thousands of Americans died in the effort to outlaw slavery and give these oppressed people their freedom. At the stroke of midnight, Dec. 31, 1862, the new year was ushered in with the announcement that “All slaves in the Confederate states are declared legally free.” This was followed with prayers, shouts and joyful singing throughout the South as people knelt and thanked God. While the proclamation did not end slavery the moment it was issued, it did at least free some slaves.
The service, also known as “Freedom Eve,” usually begins between 7 and 10 p.m. and ends at midnight. Many go to church before going out to celebrate, and for some this is their only celebration of the night. Many churches embrace it as an alternative to the rowdy partying and drinking associated with New Year’s Eve. This observance among Christians has developed into a mostly African-American practice.
Actually, Watch Night began with the Moravians, a small Christian denomination originally from the Czech Republic, and was first held in 1733. The celebration was picked up from the Moravians by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. The first one to take place in the United States was held in Philadelphia in 1770. It was a worship then called “Covenant Renewal Service” or “watched over” as one’s covenant with God. It was a time to meditate on your state of grace and get spiritually ready to meet your maker should you be called suddenly to do so.
Other practices for entering the new year is to be free of financial obligation, an old superstition and one that today I think would be difficult. December, with all the shopping that is done and with so many people buying with a credit card, it would be hard for some in this day and age to start the new year debt free. The first day of the year was also a time for paying social calls on your neighbors and you were not to mention anything business related, make a transaction or participate in buying or selling of any kind.
But after the celebrations of Kwanzaa, Watch Night and Martin Luther King’s birthday, we are now into February, which is Black History Month. It is a time to recognize achievements made by black Americans in United States history. Why we should have a special month for this, any more than having a White American Month, I am not sure. Shouldn’t these special people and their contributions be recognized every month regardless of their color? But in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized the month as special and since then every United States President has designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history, although it is celebrated in October in the United Kingdom.
It started in 1926 when historian Carter Woodson and a minister named Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History with the purpose of promoting achievements of black Americans and the month of February was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Schools and communities nationwide organize celebrations, form history clubs and host performances and lectures. During this month, African-American history will be taught to thousands of students in elementary and high schools and the universities. It is an important part of American history and impossible to find a textbook that does not include passages about black history. The event started out as Negro History Week, but because of the Civil Rights Movement, by the late 1960s it became a month-long event and now goes by a different name.
Each year the current president chooses a theme. In 2010 the theme focused on the history of black economics empowerment and recognized the achievements of the painter Jacob Lawrence, entrepreneur Annie Malone and the National Urban League. Lawrence was an American painter whose art was in the shapes and colors of Harlem. He was only in his 20s when he became famous for his depiction of the great migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. The picture above was painted by Lawrence at age 60 years and is a self-portrait. It has a strange configuration but it shows his style of a flattened and abstract treatment to realistic subject matter. His paintings still hang in museums all across the United States. He died in the year 2000 at the age of 83.
Annie Malone was responsible for inventing hair care products for African-American women and later, a line of beauty products called “Poro.” She started a college in St. Louis in order to train her sales people and produce her product. By the 1930s she had a representative in every state in the Union and Canada and the Philippines. She became one of the wealthiest black women of that time and is well known for her large contributions to a black orphanage in St. Louis that was later named after her. She died at the age of 88 years.
These are just two of the thousands of black persons who were committed to providing social services, educational programs, advocacy, quality of life and entrepreneurship for the African-American people in addition to their roles in sports, television and movies, opera, politics, literature, as inventors and many more.