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'Watch Nights,' A New Year's Celebration Of Emancipation

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'Watch Nights,' A New Year's Celebration Of Emancipation


'Watch Nights,' A New Year's Celebration Of Emancipation

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The National Archives is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by putting the original document on display this weekend. NPR's Allison Keyes tells us the institution will also hold a series of programs including a Watch Night on New Year's Eve, following a tradition dating back to December 31, 1862.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Former slave Charlie Smith remembers when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.


CHARLIE SMITH: I was 21 years old when freedom was declared.

KEYES: Smith was 119 years old when that interview was done for a USDA radio program more than five decades ago. He said that historic day didn't make an immediate difference to his life at the Smith family ranch in Texas. Smith said he continued to stay on the ranch.

SMITH: I stayed right here in the house.

KEYES: In fact, National Archives African-American records specialist Reginald Washington explains.

REGINALD WASHINGTON: The Emancipation Proclamation didn't immediately free any slave.

KEYES: Washington says the proclamation only applied to areas where the federal government had no control or ability to enforce its provisions. The document that actually freed the slaves was the 13th amendment. But the proclamation changed the character of the conflict - from a war to preserve the union to a war for human liberation. When President Lincoln started to sign it, he hesitated because...

WASHINGTON: His hand started shaking. So, he didn't want to sign it so someone would think that he had second thoughts about it.

KEYES: The president collected himself, then signed.

LONNIE BUNCH: Several publishers published small versions - pocket versions of the Emancipation Proclamation to be given to soldiers and officers.

KEYES: Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, says the tiny documents were read to slaves.

BUNCH: And there are wonderful reminiscences by the enslaved of saying I was on Master Johnson's plantation and a Yankee soldier came, and he took out a little piece of paper and suddenly said we were free.

KEYES: Bunch says the power of the idea of freedom to people held in bondage is behind a tradition called Watch Night. It began December 31, 1862 as abolitionists and others waited for word, via telegraph, newspaper or word of mouth, that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued.

BUNCH: But a lot of it, at least the initial Watch Night, was really many of the free black community.


KEYES: Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. has held Watch Night services for 35 years. The pastor, H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., says this year's will begin with praise, testimony and music.

H. BEECHER HICKS, JR.: You might hear an anthem, you might hear a spiritual, you might hear a gospel.


KEYES: And he says somewhere in the service - he hasn't made up his mind just when yet...

HICKS: There will be a sermon, which is designed to address the progressive and sometimes the regressive moves that we have been through as a people.

KEYES: Hicks says at midnight, the congregation will pray the old year out and the new year in. He says Watch Night is deeply rooted in the history of blacks in America, especially at a time when the community is still struggling. The Smithsonian's Lonnie Bunch says he smiles when people talk about how they're going to stay up for the new year.

BUNCH: Because they are celebrating the freedom of African-Americans.

KEYES: The Emancipation Proclamation will be on display at the National Archives from December 30th through January 1st. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.


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