by Ashley Johnson
Courier Staff Writer
For many Americans Watch Night services were a way to give praise for making it through another year and for what is going to happen in the upcoming year; but to African-Americans Watch Night symbolizes more. Historically, Watch Night is the night, on Dec. 31, 1862, that many slaves gathered together to await news and confirmation of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 1, 1863.
Now, 150 years later, churches all over the country are still carrying on that tradition. On Dec. 31, the Senator John Heinz History Center, in conjunction with Bethel AME Church, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society Inc. and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History Edna B. McKenzie Branch, commemorated the historic event with a special presentation prior to their annual Watch Night Service.
It was only fitting that a presentation honoring a historic event occur at Bethel, the first African Methodist Episcopal church west of the Allegheny Mountains and the oldest Black church in the city of Pittsburgh, established in 1808.
Reverend Dr. Steven Jackson, pastor of Bethel AME Church, said having the presentation to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation was historically important. “It renews our history and where we came from; because you do not know where we are and where we’re going until you know where you came from.”
Samuel Black, director of African American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center, said Bethel was chosen as the site for this occasion because of its history of being the first African-American church and the significant role it played during that time in history. “Key members of the Abolitionist Movement (in Pittsburgh) were members of Bethel. And for a church to have survived this long, it is a great thing.”
With Bethel being established in 1808, “it shows, Bethel was there in 1862/1863 and thriving,” said Rev. Jackson.
Black, who admitted that he still finds it hard to celebrate New Years Eve because he always thinks back to how his ancestors struggled in 1862, said, “As African-Americans we need to take a step back and look at what is significant.”
The approximately 35-minute presentation included a reading of Bethel’s history by church historian Betty L. Moore, a brief history of Watch Night and the Emancipation Proclamation, a few words from historian John Ford of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, and a symbolic reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by Black.
When asked if he thinks we, as a society, have come a far way since the days of the Emancipation Proclamation, Rev. Jackson said, “If we look on paper we have. We have a Black president of the United States; we (African-Americans) are mayors and presidents of colleges. But historically we have not. In the Hill (District), I drive by construction sites and see no Blacks. Our percentages in prisons are higher than in colleges.”
Although he is not sure what the cure is, he said, “We need to look back, then look around and then look ahead.”
After the special anniversary presentation, Bethel held their traditional Watch Night service, joined by the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church and Pastor Emeritus Rev. Dr. J. V. Alfred Winsett, who was guest preacher.
As for further plans to commemorate the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Black said the History Center plans to hold various programs, workshops, film viewings and lectures, throughout the year, including their current exhibition, “From Slavery to Freedom,” which highlights the history of the anti-slavery movement, the Underground Railroad and quest for civil and human rights in Pittsburgh.
(For more information on programs, call the Senator John Heinz History Center at 412-454-6000.)