On Dec. 31, 1862, across the nation, thousands of black slaves and freed blacks came together in churches and homes to pray in anticipation of an historic day.
That day came hours later on Jan. 1, 1863, when then President Abraham Lincoln kept his promise and signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, freeing all slaves in the rebel states.
The Alcoa-Blount County NAACP will commemorate that important day in American history with a Freedom’s Eve service from 10 p.m. to midnight on Sunday, Dec. 31, at High Praises Church in Maryville. All are invited.
Ron Coffin will provide more on the history of Freedom’s Eve. He said local congregations like those who founded Maryville’s St. Paul AME Zion in 1867 had these special nights way back when.
“Even before newly freed slaves founded St. Paul, they met on that night in people’s houses, giving praise to God that the Emancipation Proclamation was going to be signed,” he said. “In September of that year after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln said he was going to sign it and it would take effect on Jan. 1. So, on Freedom’s Eve, they gathered and had worship.”
There was no 24-hour news, so people had to wait until information trickled in, from telegrams or runners, Coffin said.
Now, more than 150 years after the first Freedom’s Eve service, there are still black churches that continue the tradition. Coffin said it’s been a while since one has been held here.
The Rev. Dr. Willa Estell is a member of the Alcoa-Blount NAACP Executive Committee, which was recently rechartered. She said she knew other NAACP chapters hold a Freedom’s Eve celebration and thought it was a good idea for the community.
“Many of us didn’t know the historical context of Watch Night,” she said. “I thought it would be wonderful to bring it back to its original meaning for us in the African American community so people will understand what it is we are celebrating. Of course we are celebrating what God has done for us throughout the year and also remembering that first celebration before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a time of celebration and remembrance.”
The location of the celebration in Blount County will be High Praises Church, located on East Broadway in Maryville. Estell asked its pastor, Jackie Midkiff, to host and he agreed. Estell is pastor at St. Paul AME Zion Church in Maryville, but she thought a change of venue was in order for this event.
“My desire is to have events at multiple locations so it will have more of a community feel,” she said. “When we have things at St. Paul, sometimes people think it’s a St. Paul thing.”
Speakers for the evening will include Dr. Keri Prigmore, third vice-president and chairperson of the membership and communications committees for the local NAACP, and the Rev. Samuel Brown, who serves as first vice-president and chairperson for the political action committee. Prigmore said this is the first Freedom’s Eve service she will have attended.
Her message will be one of encouragement. She sees signs here in the community that provide hope, despite the sometimes divisive climate found in other places. But she has also had to talk with her young children about how to answer racism. She said her second-grader came home and said one of his friends said all black people are bad.
“I taught my children how to handle situations like that,” she said. “I want everyone to know we are not fighting against one another. We are fighting an evil trying to destroy and divide.”
This New Year’s Eve service will also feature the High Praises Dance Team, Soul-E-United and the praise team. Charles and Jill Carpenter will read the Emancipation Proclamation.
Robert McClelland, a relative newcomer to Blount County, wasted no time in immersing himself in community service. He has joined the NAACP, and is also a member of Blount County United. He does publicity for both groups. He wants to stress that people of all colors are welcome to join the NAACP.
“There is a continuing need for a branch here,” he said. “To address issues with regard to equality and access to voting rights and to press up against discrimination wherever it’s found.”
McClelland’s background in education has taken him all over the world. He taught school in Nairobi, as well as here in the U.S. “I have been concerned about racism since my teenage years,” he said.
Those who attend the Freedom’s Eve service at High Praises will be able to join the NAACP if they wish. The group meets on the fourth Saturday of each month at St. Paul AME Zion, 401 W. Broadway, Maryville.
When Estell was organizing this special night, she asked the Rev. Harold Middlebrook if he could be the speaker, but the civil rights leader from Knoxville had other engagements. Estell said she made the decision to bring in young adults (Prigmore and Brown), who now have a role to play.