Watching for Freedom

Waiting for the Hour, Painting by William Tolman Carlton. Credit White House History

Waiting for the hour

December 31, 1862.

For hours they’d sang songs, deep spirituals that reflected the soul of their experience. Some had prayed while others, embittered, stood with their eyes open. Watching for freedom.

Now, they gathered, huddled together in a hut so small, it seemed more like a closet than anything else. Their faces—some black, some brown, others so fair that there could be no doubt of their heritage— were all turned toward a wizened man hunched over a crate at the room’s center.

Some wept quietly. Others coughed, trying to muffle the sound in their armpits lest they miss the announcement that would surely come any minute now. In the corner, a woman sat on the floor, holding a nursing baby to her breast. But her face too was turned toward the man. Waiting for freedom.

“It’s time,” he said. His raspy voice was quiet but choked with emotion. “We is free.”

A Historical african-american tradition

My first memory of an all-night watch service was around 9 years old. My church, mostly people of color, gathered to usher out the old year with prayer, preaching, and lively songs like “I made it over.” Most of us brought food to share for after the service. I participated in this tradition for years without ever realizing the historical importance of what I was witnessing.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. The night before, slaves in the Confederate States gathered to wait for the hour of their deliverance, setting in motion a tradition among many African-American family groups that is with us still.

I cannot begin to imagine the depth of emotion that flooded their hearts as they watched for freedom. No doubt there was joy. Perhaps fear. Anger. And above all a cautious hope. For centuries of systematic oppression were about to come to an end. And while the journey toward freedom was by no means complete, none could deny that this was a step forward.

Moving forward

The road ahead would be all uphill, lined with violence and twisted political ideologies. But just because the road was difficult didn’t mean it shouldn’t be walked. They knew that the future, for better or worse, was in their hands to shape.

Tonight, we will ring in 2023 in various ways. And, while our own stories may be different, we all have something in common. Fears. Griefs. Challenges and dreams. We also have the opportunity to improve ourselves and the lives of those around us.

Inequity and turmoil surround us. But within remains that quiet, indestructible element of the human spirit which defies all rational expectations and drives us onward when all else fails: hope. Armed with this hope, we too can watch and work for a better tomorrow.

JP Robinson


Leave a Comment

  1. Thank you for the history lesson, I wonder how many ‘traditions’ are rooted in deeper events. I miss the “watch nights” of my childhood. Especially love the line “just because the road is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be walked” still true today.

  2. I’ve attended watch night services almost my entire life, but I never understood the significance until today. Many situations in our current societal climate need to change, and prayer is the key element. Thank you for sharing this history in such a compelling way.

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