Pensacola’s African-American Churches Hold Historic New Year’s Eve Watch Night Services

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By: Tony McCray

While ABC celebrated New Year’s Eve around the nation in New York City, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, with huge crowds and major entertainers many African-Americans spent their New Year’s Eve in church at a “Watch Night Service”!  For many Black-Americans who lived or grew up in Black communities in the United States they have experienced Watch Night Services which traditionally draws the gathering of the faithful in churches around the nation on New Year’s Eve.

The service usually begins anywhere from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and ends at midnight with the entrance of the New Year. Some folks come to church first, before going out to celebrate. For others, the church service becomes the only New Year’s Eve event that dominates the evening and early morning.

Zion Hope Primitive Baptist Church on West Leonard Street and New Dimensions Christian Center on West Navy Blvd., both held Watch Night Services this past New Year’s Eve continuing the tradition in our community.

Watch Night is a standard Christian religious service which is more linked to the Black Church that celebrates its heritage traced back to gatherings on December 31, 1862, also known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On that night, Blacks came together in churches and private homes across the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had actually become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, it was January 1, 1863, and all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God. The Black Community has gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing them and their families together safely through another year.

 The end-of-year Watch Night of 1862 took on special significance since the enslaved Black population were made aware of President Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation made on September 22, 1862 which stated the impending January 1, 1863 enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, and that night has come to be known as “Freedom’s Eve.”

While that proclamation did not end slavery the moment it was issued, it did at least proclaim some slaves free. Knowing that this was going into effect the next day must certainly have influenced the nature of that year’s Watch Night within the African-American and abolitionist communities!

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