My memory of Watch Night worship service was a time when my congregation, and many other African American churches, gathered for a worship service celebrating the end of the year, and the beginning of the new year, at the stroke of midnight. It was not until I was an adult that I learned this Watch Night worship service was associated with emancipation of slaves on January 1, 1863. In fact, just two years after the bitter Civil War ended, the Baptist African Church of Oxford, Ohio was organized in 1865 – a church I would go on to pastor in the mid 80’s.
The celebration of Watch Night marked the date of emancipation. However, the news of the proclamation of emancipation was not known to many thousands of African American slaves living in confederate states. The confederate state of Texas did not free its slaves until June 19, 1865 when Union Troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that over 200,000 slaves were set free by executive order. The celebration of Juneteenth looks back on this event. How ironic that I grew up in a church in the north, which marks its history in the same year as the birth year of Juneteenth, 1865. Freedom-loving people still have a reason to celebrate!
Dr. Terriel Byrd, Professor Emeritus
Read more about Dr. Byrd here.