“Watch Night”

Harriet Tubman (1820 – 1913)


Araminta “Harriet” Ross Tubman (1822-1913) was a fugitive slave whose work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad made her a legend. Born in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849 and supported herself by working in Philadelphia hotels before relocating to Canada and, later, New York. In a decade, she guided over 300 slaves to freedom.

Watch Night Service: 158 Years After The Emancipation Proclamation


The first Watch Night Services was celebrated in Back communities in America, December 31, 1862.



The “Watch Night Service” can be traced back to gatherings also known as “Freedom Eve.”  Black Churches in America symbolizes the historical fact, that on the night of Dec. 31, 1862 during the Civil War, freed blacks living in the Union States gathered at churches and/or other safe spaces, while thousands of their enslaved black sisters and brothers stood, knelt and prayed on plantations and other slave holding sites in America — waiting for President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation into law.  Lincoln had used the occasion of the Union victory at Antietam to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the rebellious states after January 1, 1863.  The Emancipation Proclamation legally recognized that the Civil War was fought for slavery. Still. one hundred and fifty-six years later, African American Christians continue the faith tradition of their enslaved ancestors and gather at a designated meeting space on December 31st to celebrate; they are the survivors of a people who were defined in the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths human, shackled in chains and denied the right to vote.

Although Afro-Americans have achieved many milestones, there are still many issues that face us.  For instance,  one hundred and fifty-six years later we are fighting the oppressive Voter Suppression ID laws that were created by states after the tenure of  President Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States.  These Voter ID laws mirrored the unethical, racially discriminating poll taxes and voting tests which were enacted after the Civil War.

Like many other black churches in America, Salem Gilfield Baptist church, have gathered with eight other churches annually on New Year’s Eve praising God for bringing us safely through another year.   Although, the service is subject to change from year to year, this ecumenical and inter-generational “Watch Night” worship service begins approximately 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. until 12:00 a.m. CST. The host church offers refreshments around 10:00 pm.  Occasionally, the Youth Departments of the various churches opens service with singing, prayers, and readings, and the service is later continued with adult worshipers.  In tradition, like many Black Churches in America, five minutes before midnight, men, women, and children will kneel, hold hands and pray to God from the present year into the New Year.


The African American Desk Reference
Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture
Copyright 1999 The Stonesong Press Inc. and
The New York Public Library, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Pub.

Rev. Joan R. Harrell, Contributor
Director of Public Communications, Trinity United Church of Christ