Freedom’s Eve at the Archives

Tonight most of us in the District will be spending New Year’s Eve celebrating with a watch party to see the ball drop in Times Square.

Sally Fickland, a former slave, views the Emancipation Proclamation in Philadelphia in 1947.
Sally Fickland, a former slave, views the Emancipation Proclamation in Philadelphia in 1947. (Photo: National Archives)

But every December 31st, there’s another type of watch night gathering – one that commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect on January 1, 1863.

The very first Watch Night was held around the country on New Year’s Eve 1862, by African Americans and abolitionists waiting to hear word that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Proclamation.

The night was dubbed Freedom’s Eve, and witnessed the first major step toward the abolition of slavery in the United States. It also added a new significance to what had been an end-of-year religious tradition for many Protestant churches by creating a new tradition for African American churches.

This New Year’s Eve, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Archives is joining the festivities and staying up late.

The Archives will be open until 1 AM with the Emancipation Proclamation on display.

On my tours, I usually list the Emancipation Proclamation – along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – as one of the nation’s most important documents that you can see preserved at the Archives. But in reality, it’s rarely in public view because of its fragility.

For the sesquicentennial, you have the chance to see it until 5 PM on New Year’s Day, with a number of related events throughout January.

Incidentally, the District experienced its own wave of freedom before the rest of the country. Lincoln issued an emancipation act for Washington, D.C. on April 16, 1862, which is still celebrated as Emancipation Day in the city.

Not many outside the District know this part of the story, but this year it had a large effect on the rest of the country. It moved the nation’s tax deadline by a couple of days, since April 15 fell on a Sunday, and April 16 was observed as a city-wide public holiday.

And now at the end of the year, Freedom’s Eve adds a whole new meaning to the holiday. So if you’re still standing at midnight, take a stroll down to the Archives to take part in this historic Watch Night.

Or better yet, head there tomorrow after sleeping it off.

I can’t think of a better way for the history buff to ring in 2013.

The first page of the fragile Emancipation Proclamation. (Photo: National Archives)
The first page of the fragile Emancipation Proclamation. (Photo: National Archives)
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