Watch Night marks 150th anniversary of Lincoln's proclamation

Tue Jan 1, 2013 10:06am EST
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By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church cried out in testimony, prayer and song at a New Year's Eve service recalling the vigils held by blacks 150 years ago as they awaited President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The document that helped end slavery in the United States resonated deeply in Charleston, where thousands of enslaved Africans arrived in America from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. The first shots of the Civil War also were fired in Charleston in 1861.

"It's not just an African-American celebration, it's an American celebration, akin to the Fourth of July," Reverend Clementa Pinckney said to 100 congregants at the two-hour service, known as Watch Night. "It's freedom come full circle."

As he read aloud excerpts from the proclamation, he told the congregation, "We stand on the shoulders of abolitionists and missionaries."

The lights inside the 194-year-old church were turned off shortly before midnight. In the dark, a succession of singers in a minute-by-minute countdown to the new year called, "Watchman, watchman, please tell me the hour of the night."

The minister's response pierced the darkness. "It is three minutes to midnight," then "It is two minutes to the new year," then "Last chance to pray in 2012." Finally, "It is now the new year. Freedom has come."

Watch Night, a historical New Year's Eve tradition of reflection and prayer in some American Protestant churches, became a tradition in African-American churches starting in 1862.

That night, on "Freedom's Eve," black churches and abolitionist communities waited for what 19th-century abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass wrote was "the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn upon us."   Continued...

LaMonte Thomas of North Charleston, South Carolina, stands in the choir balcony just before the start of the Watch Night service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina December 31, 2012. REUTERS/Randall Hill