For 150 years African Americans have been gathering at church on New Year’s Eve to pray and celebrate new beginnings. We call this “Watch Night”. This tradition was started on December 31, 1862, the day before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. They prayed and waited through the night for official confirmation of the good news.

When I think about that faithful night, I imagine what their prayers must have been on the height of anticipation. I’m reminded of my own family’s struggle for freedom, even after slavery ended. My grandmother was a very young girl when my great grand parents packed up  their children to escape from the new form of slavery called sharecropping.

The opportunities and successes bestowed upon my generation are not “entitlements” or  “handouts.” They are hard fought liberties, the result of faith coupled with tireless works. Our freedoms came through the wet nurses, slaves, cooks, bus boys, school teachers, preachers and drivers…the everyday people that lived in the midst of sheer pain and wouldn’t allow themselves to die out even when the pain was too much to bear.

Somebody dared to dream of freedom, prosperity and hope. Somebody saw the bodies hanging from trees and wouldn’t let it stop them. Somebody pushed those limits until they burst at the seams.

Somebody prayed. It is through these prayers that fears were diminished, aspirations were solidified and futures were protected. It is through this legacy that new generations dare to go further and reap what was sown by our forefathers and foremothers.


Often slave rebellions and freedom movements were organized by preachers, spiritual leaders and activists like Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Queen Nanny, MLK, Ella Baker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Toussaint Louverture, Malcolm X and etc. It was they who foresaw brighter futures.

The mantra holds true, “We’ve come this far by faith.” This faith maintains that “trouble don’t last always,” and “weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” How quickly we forget how we got over.

We live in the age of Apps, iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s easy for us to become consumed with the world around us. We often forget that even the most simple rights like drinking from a water foundation and ordering food, were hard fought.

One hundred fifty years ago, our ancestors held the first official “Watch Night.” They’re still watching, guiding new generations as we usher in a new dawn. 

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of & To reach JAM, email her at

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10 thoughts on “The Living Prayer: 150 Years Of Watch Night

  1. Wow thank you for educating me. I have gone to watch night services ever since I was a baby. I never knew what watch night meant and was always told it was to ring in the new Year with God. Not that this is something our ancestors did or when it started. Thank you for the education

    1. We definitely have to do a better job of teaching youth. Too many are going through life without a historical compass. You have to know where you came from to understand where you’re going.

  2. I have shared this information via email and Facebook with family and friends. Thanks for adding to my history book.


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