How December 31st Became a Milestone in Black History

enslaved person escaping in the forest
Via Flickr
Graciella Ye'Tsunami
December 6, 2023

We know December 31st as New Year’s Eve, but nearing the end of the Civil War, our ancestors knew it as “Watch Night” or “Freedom’s Eve.” 

President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but the declaration wouldn’t take effect until New Year’s Day. As the new year drew closer, so did our ancestors' anticipation.

On December 31st, 1862, numerous free Black communities gathered. With the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, freedom would light the way into the New Year. 

This wouldn't be the traumatic “Hiring Day” of the past.

Historically, New Year’s Day was known as “Hiring Day.” Families were torn apart as greedy enslavers looked to profit. 

To avoid being sold, escapees ran during Christmas, relying on the holiday to hide their absence.

Whether waiting to run to freedom or to hear the news of emancipation, our ancestors reclaimed New Year’s as a time for liberation. 

As Freedom Eve approaches, let’s gather in community and remember the hope, courage, and bravery of our ancestors. How can we channel this energy in the upcoming year?

What if this Watch Night, we took matters into our own hands and recommit ourselves to our liberation in the coming New Year.

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