Watch Meetings: Midnight as the Moment of Emancipation, 1863 and 1965

Carte de Visite after William Carlton’s 1863 eponymous painting. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, permanent bookmark
Moving Star Hall Singers at the Sing for Freedom Festival and Workshop (Alan Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Courtesy of Association for Cultural Equity)
The Moving Star Hall Singers at the Sing for Freedom Festival and Workshop, Edwards, Mississippi, 1965. Photograph from the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

In this post I contrast two African-American watch meetings, one that heralded the year 1863, the other 1965. One perhaps was never held, but was powerfully depicted in a painting and circulated as a carte de visite, the other was recorded on twelve reel-to-reel audiotapes and never reproduced. As an historian of temporality, I am particularly interested in these two events because of their emphasis on midnight and the New Year as intertwined moments of profound importance. They also shed light on African-American politics and culture.

On December 31, 1862 black and white abolitionists and their sympathizers awaited the moment of midnight with anxious anticipation, for with the arrival of January 1, 1863, President Lincoln would, and did, sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Never had the arrival of a new year been more welcome, never had the last few moments of an old year, and with it an old regime, been wished away with more fervor: as Frederick Douglass put it, “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four million of slaves; we were watching, as it were, by the dim light of stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries.” The “dawn of a new day” did not come until the middle of the afternoon of January 1, 1863, when after ceremonially shaking hands for three straight hours at the President’s New Year’s Day reception, Lincoln retired to his office to sign the decree. Word of Lincoln’s disposition reached Boston via telegraph, just when, according to Douglass, “patience was well-nigh exhausted, and suspense was becoming an agony.” Many are familiar with Douglass’ account that “the scene was wild and grand.” Attend too to the next sentence from his 1882 memoirs: “Joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression, from shouts of praise to sobs and tears.”

This was no scene for the late afternoon hours of a fading day in wintry Boston, but for the midnight hour. Indeed, an enduring and widely circulated representation of the moment of Emancipation places it at midnight December 31. Rendered by New England artist William T. Carlton, this painting titled Watch Meeting, Dec. 31, 1862,Waiting for the Hour (1863) shows, amidst a crowd of variously attired African-American men, women and children, an elderly African-American preacher earnestly looking at a pocket watch in one hand, his other resting on what is presumably the Bible. Clearly this is a watch meeting, which had its origins among Methodists in the 1740s, and had extended into various parts of the United States, especially the slave South. Behind the preacher, the Emancipation Proclamation hangs from a rough-hewn wall, illuminated by an upraised torch. At the center of the composition, the rather large watch, showing five minutes to midnight commands attention. Widely distributed as a carte de visite, this depiction of emancipation elides the necessity of Lincoln’s signature: the stroke of midnight burst the chains of slavery. Neither Carlton’s painting nor the perhaps better-known emancipation painting, Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation (1864), convey the actual moment when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Nevertheless, the New Year’s Eve count down leaping out from Carlton’s painting persuasively insists on midnight as the moment of liberation. In 2012 the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation reached its zenith December 31 at midnight when an actress dressed as Harriet Tubman rang a bell at midnight in the National Archives where the original Emancipation Proclamation was in display.

Although commemorative watch night services were held in the years following Emancipation, by 1900, many urban African-American churches held commemorative services on New Year’s Day. What is more, other dates, such as Emancipation Day and later Juneteenth, brought with them emancipation celebrations. Nevertheless, a smattering of African-American watch night services persisted. No doubt this had to do with more than the mythical reverence for midnight as the moment of Emancipation, for by the 1960s the count down to midnight was the focal point of New Year’s celebrations in society as a whole. Consider the hegemonic power of the ball drop in Times Square, broadcast on radio and television alike. An extant audio recording of one such service, made in 1964/65 by the folklorists Guy and Candie Carawan in Moving Star Hall, a one-room praise house built by the Gullah Geechee people in 1917, on Johns Island, South Carolina, reveals to listeners the weight of an accumulated century in which former slaves sought freedom in the United States. The Carawans, compilers of the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome (1963) and editors of the astounding Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? (1966), recorded the eight-hour service on twelve extant reel-to-reel audiotapes. The hymns, prayers, sermons, and testimony together draw on the Gullah tradition of the ring shout, where participants prayed, sang, testified, stomped, clapped and shouted.

Of the watch meeting’s many powerful songs and prayers, the count down to midnight stands out on the recording of Moving Star Hall’s watch service.

After an hour or so of singing and praying in Moving Star Hall, a male voice announced: “It is now four minutes to twelve.” The small gathering responded in song: “Lord have mercy on my soul.”

Soon he broke in again, with “watchman, watchman, the time is two minutes to twelve”; again the congregation sang, “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, on my soul.”

A different male voice pled, “watchman, watchman, please tell me when it is time.” This is the watchman of Isaiah 52:8 and Jeremiah 31:6, who leads his people in song toward the promised land.

Moments later, the timekeeper interrupted the singing, slowly saying “It is now one minute to twelve.” And again the singing began, “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, on my soul.”

The time extended, well beyond one minute, the cries for mercy increased in intensity, as did the shouts of “yes, yes” and “yes Lord,” but the dirge continued.

Finally, the watchman proclaimed, “The old year is passed and gone, the New Year is commenced.” No hoots and hollers, instead the plaintive words, sung by all: “how long watchman, how long?”

Rising in volume, “How long, Mr. Watchman, how long?”

Then rhythmic clapping, “64 passed away, 65 is come” interspersed with “Mr. Watchman how long?”

Listen here:

Screaming, howling, stomping, clapping in double time, the shout set in, all the while the question “how long watchman, how long?” rang out. The collective release of sadness, hope, despair, resignation, doubt continued until dawn. As Esau Jenkins, a local civil rights leader, explained in a later interview with the Carawan’s: “you can see them singing for a better day, shouting for a better day.” To bring in 1965, the people gathered at Moving Star Hall sang more than sixty different hymns, gave voice in prayer and in testimony, and in sermon too, to as much anguish as hope. The future invoked in Moving Star Hall was “the new heaven and new earth” of Revelations Chapter 21. The count down was to death, and then to resurrection. With the very last hymn sung, “See What the End is Gonna Be,”an hour after sunrise on New Year’s Day 1965 the participants ventured forth into 1965.


Audio recording: New Year’s Watch, 1964-65, Moving Star Hall, Johns Island, South Carolina, Guy and Candie Carawan Collection (20008), Southern Folklife Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Thanks to Candie Carawan for permission to reproduce tracks from the recording and to Wilson Library for recordings.

“Heart-Break Days”: The Sad Things That Happen During the Holidays

While transcribing entries from the private journal of a lifelong resident of North Carolina, William D. Valentine, I came across an 1845 entry that began, “Yesterday Christmas that holy anniversary of our Lord’s birth…” But instead of an account of merriment, prayers, and presents for the children, Valentine fulminated for pages that “it will long be remembered as a day of sorrow mingled with indignation and mortification–a day of deep seated family affliction and trouble… We went no where; we wanted to see no person…. The only relief was now and then a tear from father or brother.”  As I tried to make out the handwriting, my mind leapt around, first to a death, but then to a row, or perhaps an arrest, a bankruptcy?  Then I reached the bottom of the page, where Valentine recounts the elopement of his sister Christmas eve with “a trifling fellow.”  The rest of the Christmas season Valentine found himself unable to accept his sister’s marriage: he wrote a few days later, “the affair has disturbed my peace more than any thing that ever occurred in our family.”

And yet, Valentine’s diary is full of holiday sadness, for himself, for his family, and for his nation.  In 1841 he writes “this has not been a very merry Christmas.”  On the last day of the next year the young lawyer Valentine writes “This being the last day of this any thing to me than agreeable year.”   Even before his sister’s seduction Valentine was apparently mortified: in accounting for 1842 he reflects that, “most of the time I spent in pain , penury and mortification.”  The 1844 holiday season was especially rough: not only does Valentine complain about being unmarried, his 1845 New Year’s day entry recounts in sad and perhaps even paranoid detail the election of James K. Polk to the Presidency: “The past year, the eventful 1844, is gone and these good friends of the country are in deep heartfelt sorrow.” Not that long afterward was “a year of war and rumors of war,” so much so that 1847 “entered with the blast of war.”

One more sad thing leaps out from Valentine’s private journal, a portal into the many sad things that happened during holidays past. On January 1, 1851 Valentine complained that “a most disagreeable but necessary duty devolved on the heads of this family yesterday.”  Several of his slaves stole and slaughtered a neighbor’s hog, so “we tied them up and whipped them.”  Many other entries note attending “the Negro hire” around the turn of the year, which reminds the reader of Valentine’s diary that while the sudden departure of some members of a household (like Valentine’s sister who eloped with that trifling fellow) led to mortification, other sudden departures, like the rental and sale of slaves, did not even merit notice in the annals of holiday remembrances like Valentine’s. And yet, what Valentine wrote the day after his sister eloped could well be appropriated to describe the feelings and experiences of countless Americans:  “it will long be remembered as a day of sorrow mingled with indignation and mortification.” For example, William Nell, the first African-American to work in the Federal government, described New Year’s day as being “proverbially known throughout the South as ‘Heart-Break Day,’ from the trials and horrors peculiar to sales and separations of parents and children, husbands and wives” (1863).  Heart-break Days indeed.


Sources:  William Valentine’s private journal is held in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. My thanks to David Henkin for bringing to my attention William Nell’s condemnation of New Year’s Day in the antebellum South in an 1863 speech celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation.

Copyright Alexis McCrossen November 12, 2015. If you’d like to circulate, quote at length or reprint this post, please email me first at <> . Thanks.



Democratic Temporal Rites: New Year’s Celebrations in the United States

With the annual turn of the civil calendar in the United States, temporal rituals in churches, public squares, civic spaces, and newspapers took shape that defined the nation as God-fearing, clock-oriented, and democratic. An array of practices associated with the turn of the calendar –such as rendering an account of the previous year, delivering and listening to sermons, and praying for mercy and deliverance,– emphasized the supremacy of a Christian God.  As it unfolded year after year on January 1, New Year’s also became a particularly charged moment of what literary historian Thomas Allen calls “national time” in his book titled A Republic in Time. In Allen’s formulation, “national time” is a way in which “people imagine their collective life” that arises out of “the struggles of different individuals and groups to create a nation that reflects their interests and aspirations.”  As much as Americans focused on their own personal life journeys with the arrival of the New Year, they also took interest in, and note of, the nation’s health and trajectory. To herald the arrival of the New Year, what we might call democratic temporal rituals took shape that drew attention to the nation’s preoccupations and in some cases its ideals.

Consider the annual New Year’s Day reception hosted by the President.  The story begins at the end of the eighteenth-century in the parlor of George Washington’s Cherry Street mansion in New York City, where he received visitors wishing to pay the compliments of the season on New Year’s Day 1791. At the opening of the nineteenth century the party moved to the White House where subsequent Presidents received all-comers until 1932. Published accounts of the New Year’s Day reception circulated around and beyond the nation, as did photographs like the undated one above, showing a long line of people waiting to shake hands with either President Taft, Harding, or Coolidge. (Woodrow Wilson did not host New Year’s Day receptions). Reportage and editorializing about the reception consistently feature details about the character, comportment, and health of the President.  For one day the reception provided a stage upon which it was possible to represent what equality might look like: after shaking the President’s hand, military officers, Native American entourages, politicians and their wives and daughters, foreign legations, and ordinary citizens mixed in the public rooms of the White House.

Accompanying this democratic temporal ritual was the rhetorical and at times real emphasis on freedom, self-determination, and new beginnings, which became evident on January 1, 1863 when after shaking hands for seven hours at the New Year’s Day reception, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Thereafter the day’s association with liberation, democracy, and freedom deepened.  It did so in particular in New Year’s editorials, which often laid out high-minded programs that the nation ought to follow.  As one African-American newspaper asked: “Will 1916 usher in a dawn of new freedom for the Negro Race? Will it bring the needed Emancipation from the shackles of color prejudice? Will the country say in the coming year, ‘Whatever an American citizen’s color may be,–white, black, or else—a man’s a man for all that?” The insistence on freedom and equality that the New Year’s annually drew attention to is exemplified by the same newspaper’s New Year’s greeting a few years later: “To the New Year, 1918, we bid a hearty welcome, hoping, and trusting that it has great things in store for our race, among which, we hope EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY AND EQUALITY OF PRIVILEGES [sic].”  The New Year, next to the Fourth of July, was the preeminent moment when American dreams of equality and freedom were forcefully expressed in editorials, sermons, and private utterances. The utterance of these sentiments represents another democratic temporal ritual that characterized the arrival of the New Year in the United States.

A third democratic temporal ritual took place in the public sphere — in public spaces, radio broadcasts, and televised events–where the announcement of the moment of the New Year’s arrival generated a sense of collective belonging and hope. Even as New Year’s came to be in thrall of the clock, such that by start of the twentieth century, artificial illumination and precision chronometry together had pushed New Year’s observances from the day of January 1 into the night before, it continued to be a democratic temporal ritual. Some of the rituals associated with the stroke of midnight prodded Americans to imagine the nation and their place within it. For instance, when radio listeners heard “church bells and chimes scattered across the continent ring out the old year and welcome 1926 on New Year’s Eve,” as one newspaper reported, they came to apprehend anew the expanse of the nation, and yet to feel a sense of connection to far-flung places where bells rang in the New Year. Nearly half a century later, in 1973, when Dick Clark began hosting the live show “Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” from New York City’s Times Square, the drop of the ball at midnight underscored the distance of American viewers, and eventually foreign ones too, from New York City. But the televised scene also connected viewers to New York, to Times Square, and to the crowds who joyously celebrated the ball’s drop.

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The Shift from Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Trinity Church to Times Square, 1876-1908

On the eve of the United States’ Centennial Year, a notable number of people “made it their especial business to hear the New Year’s bells” at New York City’s Trinity Church.  When the church opened its doors an hour before midnight December 31, 1875, the pews filled to capacity, leaving the aisles crowded with men and women. Throngs jostled on the steps of A. T. Stewart’s “Iron Palace,” the nation’s first and most fabulous department store. Crowded carriages stood along both sides of Broadway for several blocks between Ninth and Eleventh Avenues.   Thousands of the city’s million residents clustered in and around its most prominent church, not for the sermons and dispensations, but to enjoy a carillon bell concert, whose program was inflected with patriotic songs, including “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia,” and to hear the time bell ring in the New Year, after which the crowd dispersed with little ado. Assembling in churches on New Year’s day to hear sermons and dispensations was a long-lived practice; but when Trinity Church’s Neo-Gothic tower and spire were completed in 1846, it more so than any other church in the nation’s leading city became the focal point of New Year’s Eve festivities.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, New Year’s observances shifted from the first day of the New Year to the eve before, due to a number of technological developments, not the least of which was precision timekeeping.  Paradoxically, the New Year’s crowds that gathered in and around Trinity Church during the second half of the nineteenth century presaged the end of American churches’ monopoly over the grandest of all temporal rites, New Year’s observances.

For millennia prior to the nineteenth century and in places across the world, temporal rites were intimately associated with religion. Many of these rites were associated with calendars, whose computation was charged with religious meaning and significance.  None were more important than the observances associated with the arrival of a New Year, whether in Christian Europe, among Jews in many lands, across the Chinese empire, or in Mayan city states.  Since the thirteenth century, when mechanical clocks slowly began to introduce another way besides the calendar to mark the passage of time, religious authorities tried to assert control over clock time.  Despite their early incidence in monasteries, where clocks helped inhabitants routinize their rounds of prayer and devotions, clock time stood apart from religious rhythms and precepts.  No religious temporal rites developed to smooth the way for the hegemony of the clock.  Churches across Europe and the United States appropriated clock time by installing enormous clocks and heavy time bells on their towers.  But eventually other social authorities assumed the responsibility for dispensing the time, largely by implementing scientific and technological procedures that guaranteed greater synchrony among communities.

Indeed, not long after the introduction of standard time and time zones in the United States on November 18, 1883, Trinity Church’s centrality to heralding the New Year was eclipsed.  On the night of December 31, 1883, pandemonium characterized the vicinity of Trinity Church.  Even though police confiscated tinhorns and bladders devised to make loud noises, “the noise of a thousand horns made night hideous and the sound of chimes inaudible.” With each year, ever larger and louder crowds assembled near Trinity Church to greet the New Year: but no one could hear the chimes.  The din was so tremendous that, according to the New York Times, it was “impossible to hear even the sounding of the hour of 12 by the ‘Great Tom,’ the mammoth of the chime of bells.”  So, in 1893 in the feeble attempt to discipline the crowds, Trinity’s rector Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix announced that the church’s bells would be silent when 1894 arrived.  A January 1, 1894 headline read: “Bells Gave No Welcome.” As Reverend Dix explained, the crowds of noisy and rowdy people “who failed to appreciate the sacredness of the time” forced him to silence Trinity’s bells. Although the New Year was a civic holiday – neither Protestant nor Catholic Church has a rite devoted to sanctifying the New Year – the Reverend Dix associated it with the opportunity to acknowledge God’s gift of time, and the Biblical mandate to “redeem the time” (Ephesians 5:16).

Perhaps sensing that he, and the church as a whole, was losing the battle to keep New Year’s observances sacred, the Reverend allowed Trinity’s bells to chime when 1895 arrived despite the prospect of bedlam.  But the chimes were yet again impossible to hear, due in part to “boys [who] made the night hideous with their horns and whistles.”  Simultaneously, fireworks around City Hall drew revelers away from Trinity Church’s environs.  As the city became ever louder, fireworks had the advantage over bells of being visible signs of midnight’s arrival.  In 1905, the New York Times entered the fray, offering a fireworks show from atop its newly constructed Times Building in Longacre Square, soon to be rechristened Times Square. But pyrotechnics were both dangerous and inexact: an era of precision timekeeping required a visible indicator that the New Year had begun. Large clocks whose works were far from their faces and whose hands were subject to the elements were unreliable, but a time ball seemed to promise the magic, precision, and visibility the age demanded. So beginning in 1908, and lasting for more than a century since, there has been no need to silence the crowd: instead a magnificent illuminated ball glides down a pole atop One Times Square, visible to the hundreds of thousands of merry makers gathered below and the millions more watching television.  The chimes of Trinity Church, and the sense of the sacredness of time, receded ever more, as did the church’s monopoly over temporal rites.


Copyright 2015 Alexis McCrossen. Please do not cite or quote without author’s written permission. For permission, please email