Black History Month

Posted February 25th, 2015 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog

Watch Night

Very little is known to most of us about Watch Night, or Freedom’s Eve, which is believed to have begun on December 31st of 1862. It is a weighty day in American history and black history especially. Watch Night should be widely recognized as an opportunity to bring us all to a place of collective thought about the closing year, the injustices that persist in the U.S. and around the world, and about the need for hope.

By way of background-John Wesley initiated a tradition of a Methodist spiritual New Year’s Eve service in the 1700’s, designed to “renew the covenant” with God in a service featuring quiet prayers and candlelight. Wesley’s Watch Night took on special significance in the days of American slavery.

From Joey Butler’s article on the topic- interview with Reverend Cynthia Wilson “At the end of the year, owners tallied their property and often sold slaves to pay debts. They didn’t know after tallying if they’d be separated. New Year’s Eve was often the last night a family of slaves would be together. Watch Night took on even more significance during the Civil War. When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it was to take effect Jan. 1, 1863. Slaves sat up the night before, waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight.”

Today, it’s a time the church comes together to celebrate life itself. Wilson noted, “As we say in the black church, it’s celebrating surviving dangers seen and unseen.” In many churches and private homes on New Year’s Eve, the last fifteen minutes of the year is spent in the dark, in quiet contemplation, keeping watch. At the stroke of midnight, candles are lit and joyous songs and prayers will bring in the hope of a new year. Imagining the level of anticipation and hope felt by so many of our American forebears on December 31, 1862, or the grief of so many New Years Eves leading up to that date, when families lived in fear of being ripped apart, is a powerful American history lesson worth contemplating as we celebrate Black History Month. Perhaps Watch Night is meaningful tradition for all to consider more seriously in years to come-an opportunity, in quiet darkness, to let go of the injustices, struggles and trials, large and small, of the passing year and to light candles at midnight with renewed hope that justice and kindness will prevail in the new year.

Through reading, visits to important black history sites, and in discussions with scholars, I have been struck by triumph as the persistent theme of black history. I would like to share a few places and people who embody triumph. They deserve our ongoing attention and support:

~Madame C.J. Walker, born in 1867, was an amazing black woman entrepreneur when that was an impossibility. Her estate, Villa Lewaro, has been named one of the National Trust’s National Treasures for its architectural and historical significance. A triumph.

~Built in 1806, the first African Meeting House on Beacon Hill in Boston is “the oldest black church edifice still standing in the United States” and one of my personal favorites of the 700+ historic buildings I have visited. From the website,, here are some of the reasons it is a triumphant building:

  • The founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society by William Lloyd Garrison  in 1832;
  • The 1833 farewell address of Maria Stewart,  a black woman and the first American born woman to speak publicly before a gender-mixed audience;
  • An 1860 anti-slavery speech by Frederick Douglass given after being  run out of Tremont Temple;
  • The 1863 recruitment to the MA 54th Regiment led by Colonel  Robert Gould Shaw.

Even to a pragmatist like myself, this building has a magic to it; it is hushed and peaceful and determined, if a building can be so.

~Though there are so many more sites worth mentioning, I must include a dynamic program initiated by historian Joe McGill- “Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings, it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history.” – Joseph McGill, Founder of the Slave Dwelling Project

History brought to life by a dedicated preservationist. Check it out.