By Darryl E. Owens
Last Monday night, blacks around the United States flocked to church. They waited on their knees. Their eyes were watching God — and the clock. Awaiting the stroke of midnight.
Just as stolen Africans and abolitionists had gathered New Year’s Eve 1862, waiting to hear freedom ring. Freedom promised by the Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln‘s war gambit to cripple the Confederacy by declaring slaves in rebel states “forever free” took effect at the witching hour — New Year’s Day 1863.
Ever since, blacks have commemorated that seismic moment with a New Year’s Eve (Freedom’s Eve) pilgrimage to the Lord’s house, a late-night vigil that came to be known as “Watch Night.”
Yet, in 2013, Watch Night carried keen resonance. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s oft-misconstrued document.
Think the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves? Not exactly. Lincoln’s martial order — his “act of justice” — conferred freedom only to slaves living in the mutinous states. And it invited the newly freed Americans to don Union-soldier blue.
“Never before had so large a number of slaves been declared free,” Eric Foner writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Fiery Trial: Lincoln and American Slavery.”
“By making the army an agent of emancipation and wedding the goals of Union and abolition, it ensured that Northern victory would produce a social transformation in the South and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American life.”
Around the nation, however, hundreds of thousands of slaves remained shackled in border slave states.
A sharp irony, with surprising modernity.