A special Watch Night presentation, which commemorates the historic event that took place 159 years ago when the nation awaited President Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation, will be held Friday, December 31 at 6 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, 321 S. Seventh Street in Springfield. A special organ performance of music composed by African Americans will follow in the church at 7 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.
The one-hour Watch Night readers’ performance is sponsored by The Abraham Lincoln Association in conjunction with the First Night Springfield celebration.
Watch Night will focus on President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the nation’s response to it,” said Robert Davis, special projects committee chair with The Abraham Lincoln Association. Davis concurred with Frederick Douglass’ statement that “The Emancipation Proclamation stands with some of the most important freedom-granting documents in human history.”
The performance will explain the birth of Watch Night on December 31, 1862 while enslaved people watched and waited for President Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. There will be a recreation of President Lincoln signing the document, followed by public reactions that occurred as a result. These reactions include Frederick Douglass’ speech “A Glorious Era Has Begun,” a letter dictated by Sojourner Truth describing her visit with the President to thank him for the Proclamation, and Harriet Tubman’s lament about how the Emancipation Proclamation did not come soon enough and did not go far enough. The joy of Negro Pastor Henry Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church over the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation will also be presented, as will the words of the Bloede brothers and sister, a white family, congratulating and encouraging Lincoln for his Emancipation Proclamation.
A Celebration of African American Composers performed by First Presbyterian Church organist Paula Pugh Romanaux will follow the Watch Night performance at approximately 7 p.m. The music to be featured includes pieces composed by Adolphus Stork, Florence Price, William Farley Smith, Marquez L.A. Garrett, .Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and W.C. Handy. The free performance will feature some music that has not been widely presented.
The Emancipation Proclamation, the inspiration for these First Night special events, opened the door for Black men to be received into the armed services of the United States, and at the time this raised a critical question, would the Black man fight to prove he was worthy of his freedom against his former masters?
“There were a number of people in both the North and the South who felt the loyalty between the slave and master was so strong that the slave would not turn on his master. And of course, we know that’s not true,” Davis said.
The Watch Night performance will also look at the fact that slaves helped captured Union soldiers escape from Confederate prisons and camps to make their way back to the North.
The original Watch Night observances occurred on December 31, 1862 the evening before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation freed the slaves in the Confederate states and authorized the formation of Black regiments in the Union Army.