The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission is partnering with Gullah Geechee communities in Charleston and across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in a celebration that is 155 years old: the New Year’s Eve “Watch Night” service commemorating the date of January 1, 1863 when enslaved people in the Low Country, the Sea Islands and throughout the United States emerged from bondage as a result of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
This New Year’s Eve, all Americans can join the descendants of the formerly enslaved in a recognition of the historic significance of the Emancipation Proclamation to our country’s history and learn more about the traditions that have taken root around this celebration in the historic Low Country communities that now comprise the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
These Watch Night and Emancipation Proclamation events will take place Sunday, December 31, 2017 and/or Monday, January 1, 2018 at local churches and other historic sites like Magnolia Plantation. Members of the public are invited to attend and a list of local participating sites can be found by city on the Commission’s website at www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org.
The Watch Night services will generally begin late in the evening on December 31, 2017. The experience in the hours leading up to midnight will vary based on custom and practice in each Gullah Geechee community but tradition holds that these services usually involve music, the traditional liturgy and contemplation of what has passed followed by reconciliation and resolutions for the coming year. Though Watch Night has continued to be observed in one form or another in the Low Country (and across the United States), it would appear that its original, historic tie to the Emancipation Proclamation has been largely lost and the Commission has launched this initiative to restore awareness of this important connection.
Reverend Edward Alston, pastor at Queen’s Chapel Church on Hilton Head Island, grew up attending Watch Night Services in Beaufort, SC and always knew its origins. “Since becoming a pastor, I realized that for the current generation, the younger folk as well as the elder, not everyone knew about the connection between Watch Night and the Emancipation Proclamation. What I do is give a brief history of it, both verbally and during the service and in written form, stating the significance and the history that ties it altogether, so that they can carry it away.” He makes a point, also, during the service to read a passage from the Bible in Gullah.
The Watchmen, elders in the community, will signal when midnight is near. At that time, the community will kneel in prayer or contemplation to welcome the New Year – and collectively reflect on how on January 1, 1863 the New Year also meant a long-hoped for freedom for millions of African-Americans in the United States. Gullah Geechee people, who have been a part of or have long memories of these traditional celebrations within their communities over the years, will educate others about the traditions, history and significance of what occurred on these days.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission was designated by an act of Congress through the National Heritage Areas Act of 2006. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor extends from Pender County, NC, to St. Johns County, FL, and extends 30 miles inland. Throughout the Corridor today there are Gullah Geechee communities, made up of direct descendants of West and Central Africans who survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean and were enslaved for almost two centuries to labor on coastal plantations in the Corridor.