Watch Night

As 2011 came to its close, many of us watched the annual rituals at Times Square on our flat-screened televisions. Around the country, songs were sung and parties enjoyed, but I wonder how many of us or our children remembered that December 31st is Watch Night. It was on this date in 1862 that Blacks in this nation, freeborn and enslaved, crowded into churches and other buildings, or huddled as families at home waiting for the event scheduled to happen on the first day of 1863. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order freeing many of the nation's slaves was to take effect. The actual order had been signed in September 1862, and was set to free the slaves held by the states in rebellion against the Union. (With the war's end in April 1865, and passage of the 13th Amendment in December of that year, all slaves would be freed.) Our ancestors had heard rumors of freedom's coming and were "watching" for this great event. They awaited word by all possible means. There were no cell phones or text messages that night, but word spread nonetheless. Yes, the president had signed the order. All Blacks in this nation had cause to celebrate.

My grandfather, James Louis Gray, was born in 1859. He was born enslaved. Slavery is my heritage. I've wondered what my grandfather's parents did on Watch Night. They lived in the border state of Missouri, which had already been technically freed by state law. Nonetheless, I imagine that they kept watch with others. Did they have cousins in other states who would be emancipated by Lincoln's order? Friends? I believe that they understood how inter-woven our destinies are. As Dr. King wrote in his great Letter from Birmingham Jail: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality."

My parents spoke easily of the way things were "back in slave days." It was simply a part of our family history, and not far away at all. Because of this, I had particular interest in the genealogical work I helped facilitate with Marjorie Taylor: The Freedman Bank records. Though the bank itself failed, a treasure survived. It had nothing to do with money, but with names.

If you're a former slave seeking to identify yourself in a new, post Civil War world where you can have a bank account and actually be paid for your labors, you have no Social Security card, no driver's license, no identification we would take for granted today. As a result, you would identify yourself by your relationships.

The microfilmed bank records we dealt with when doing the extraction (which were ultimately made available on CD) had priceless and sometimes heartbreaking notes to identify the owner of the account. In an interview, the former slave establishing an account would answer questions. Their answers would be written down. They would identify their parents, children, siblings. Each account might give generations of names, which their descendants can now look up. Family connections mattered deeply to our slave ancestors and they worked hard at maintaining those relationships -- even through the horrible years of slavery and reconstruction.

How well have we remembered this legacy and the hard history we share? Next year will be the 150th anniversary of "Watch Night." Let us teach our children to understand and value their roots. Let us never forget the lessons which remind us that what affects one affects all. Let us remember that we are still watching for freedom -- ours or that of anyone in the family of God.

May we all be blessed,

Darius A. Gray
(A Christian in the Mormon Tradition)