Albany church celebration linked to historic issuing of Emancipation Proclamation
ALBANY -- Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church will hold a Watch Night service on New Year's Eve, much like its congregation did 154 years ago.
The Watch Night service's importance in the African-American community is linked to Dec. 31, 1862, or "Freedom's Eve," the day before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
On New Year's Day 1863, according to President Lincoln's promise, all slaves in the Confederate states were legally free. But few were actually freed on that day -- given that the proclamation applied only to states that seceded from the Union, and the Civil War didn't end until 1865. Lincoln's proclamation applied only to those slaves who had already escaped to the Union side.
"People gathered in homes and churches in anticipation of this great day, falling to their knees and shouting for joy, even though their future was still uncertain," said the Rev. Edward B. Smart, Israel AME's pastor since November 2004.
"We continue to gather on this day and give thanks to God for that new beginning."
On some plantations, slave families met to pray on New Year's Eve before 1862 because owners tallied their books at the turn of the year, Smart said. The owner may have decided to sell slaves to pay debts and families could be split apart, so that evening could have been their last together, Smart said.
Founded in 1828, Israel AME Church is the oldest black church in upstate New York and has been at 381 Hamilton St. since 1854. The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and as the Civil War started, it was a place where black recruits for the Union Army drilled before going off to war.
"We are the only local church that dates back to this period in history," Smart said. "When we hear the bells strike midnight, ushering in the new year, we'll be on our knees, praying to those who have come before and for a brighter future."
Article reprinted from Times Union Sunday December 30, 2006