Listening for Freedom: Music, Movement and Watch Night History
The last night of December, 1862, many African Americans North and South gathered in homes and churches, watching and praying for news they hoped would change their lives.
They called it Freedom’s Eve, a Watch Night before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The long-awaited declaration didn’t immediately free anyone: The order only applied to ten slave states, which ignored Lincoln’s decree. But the edict did change lives and history. And it made clear that the Civil War was about eliminating slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation made it legal for more than 179,000 African Americans to join the Union Army. As historian Ira Berlin noted, “the enlistment of black men, slave as well as free, transformed the Federal army into an army of liberation...After January 1, 1863, the Union army marched for freedom, and Lincoln was its commander.”
Every year since Freedom’s Eve, many African Americans have continued to keep Watch Night, the last night of December, attending evening church services. Watch Nights predated the Civil War, beginning in 1733 with Moravian Christians, and although many people and churches observe December’s last night, the Watch Night tradition holds special significance for African Americans.
This year, in Saint Paul, East Side Freedom Library will celebrate Watch Night on Saturday, December 30th, with music, movement, history, and conversation.
Starting at 6:30, visitors can view a special exhibition of library materials about the history of the Emancipation Proclamation, Watch Night, and the ways that slaves worked to emancipate themselves, including the role that improvisation and creative arts have played in African American lives.
As ESFL staffer Dr. Alessandra Williams explains, “That’s the beauty of Watch Night-- the slaves themselves desired and worked toward their own emancipation.”
By the end of the Civil War, the Union Army had more black soldiers than Robert E. Lee had in his entire Army of Northern Virginia. But the battlefield wasn’t the only way African Americans struggled for their freedom.
Williams noted that, “Art plays a role in the creative resistance of African American people.” So the Freedom Library’s Watch Night spotlights percussive movement and drumming, music rooted in Africa. At 7 pm, Williams will lead an improvisational movement workshop. At 8 pm, musicians Marc Anderson and Davu Seru will play and Williams will perform a solo dance.
Frederick Douglass wrote that Freedom’s Eve 1862 was “a day for poetry and song, a new song.” A black abolitionist newspaper, the Pacific Appeal, in San Francisco cheered, “The Year of Jubilee Has Come!”
Williams paused when I asked what, if anything, people could celebrate this December. Like any good historian, she took the long view. “We can remember how long communities have been surviving the difficulties in this country,” she said. “There’s something about the memory of extreme disenfranchisement and oppression that I think is healing,” she said, adding, “So we don’t think that any moment we’re living in is so devastating. We have to always, always remember that history of empowerment.”
Williams, the assistant to the Freedom Library’s executive director, emphasized that African American families like hers intentionally remember and honor their ancestors’ struggles, from slavery through sharecropping and the Civil Rights movement. The remembering happens year-round, not just one night. Still, Williams added, “Watch Night becomes a reminder of how the most oppressed people in the world worked toward their freedom, and that continues to this day.”
Both Williams and library co-founder Peter Rachleff note that it’s fitting to host Watch Night at a community space focused on social justice and sharing stories of people long overlooked by traditional history. “After all,” Rachleff said, “This is the East Side Freedom Library.”
All are welcome to the East Side Freedom Library’s Listening to Freedom: Remember Watch Night with artists Marc Anderson, Davu Seru, Alessandra Williams Saturday, December 30th, 6:30 - 9 pm, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul. Participants are encouraged to wear comfortable clothing so they’ll be able to join try the improvisational movement. A $10 donation is suggested for the artists.
Pocket Emancipation Proclamation
Caption: Until end of 19th century, EP, not Gettysburg Address as the defining document of the Civil War. The Union Army gave officers and soldiers pocket copies of the proclamation, which was read to slaves.
Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet