As the clock slowly inches toward midnight on New Year’s Eve and noon on New Year’s Day, black Americans experience a sense of extra excitement and anticipation. Watch night services on New Year’s Eve and the Emancipation Proclamation Observance Day services on New Year’s Day are two traditions that still are prevalent in the black community.
Watch night services can be traced back to gatherings Dec. 31, 1862. On that night, blacks gathered in their churches, homes and other places, eagerly awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had become law.
According to the National Archives, America’s Historical Documents, this historical document read, in part:
“On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”
Almost 150 years later, most black churches in Liberty County still observe watch night services. It is a time to give thanks to God and await the coming of the New Year in the Lord’s house. In the Riceboro community, such services are called crop supper services.
According to Randolph Jones, a deacon at the historic First African Baptist Church in Riceboro, people have gathered for crop supper services at the Briar Bay praise house since the 1800s. Jones serves as president of the committee that keeps the crop supper services alive.
“We have never missed a year of having the crop supper service,” he said.
The activities begin at about 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve with singing, testimonials, praying and preaching. Members of churches in Riceboro participate in the gathering. This year, the First African Baptist Church male chorus provided the song service.
“The celebration is also a homecoming for many former residents,” said First African Baptist member Yvonne Woods. “People who left the area many years ago return for the crop supper services. Every year during the services, Doris Barrett, who is one of our faithful members, reads the history of the crop supper services. She received this meticulous history from the late Deacon Freddie Stevens, a longtime deacon of First African.
“As the time approaches 12 a.m., the deacons cut the lights and move to the four corners of the building, calling out the time. One says it is five minutes to 12 in the east, while another says it is four minutes to 12 in the west. They call the time until midnight. Promptly at midnight, the minister of the hour begins his prayer,” Woods said.
This year’s speaker is Rev. Neil Dawson, pastor of First African church.
The Emancipation Proclamation Observance Day service begins promptly at noon Jan. 1. This year’s service will be at Baconton Missionary Baptist Church in Walthourville at noon Monday, Jan. 2, due to New Year’s Day falling on Sunday.
Liberty County is one of the counties in Georgia that still observes the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a historic document that led to the end of slavery in 13 southern states. President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation Jan. 1, 1863.
This year’s speaker is the Rev. Stephen Lee, pastor of the Greater Bethel AME Church in Statesboro.
“I feel humbled to be returning to the community as the Emancipation Proclamation speaker,” Lee said.
For additional information about the crop supper, call Randolph Jones at 884-2298. For information about the Emancipation Proclamation service, call Emancipation Proclamation Committee President Rev. Dr. Hermon Scott at 368-2258.
Anderson is the author of “Lack of Knowledge” and “Dare to Soar.”