Watch Nights mark day of emancipation
December 31, 2012 - Updated: 1:30 a.m.
WASHINGTON – As New Year’s Day approached 150 years ago, all eyes were on President Abraham Lincoln in expectation of what he warned 100 days earlier would be coming – his final proclamation declaring all slaves in states rebelling against the Union to be “forever free.”
A tradition began Dec. 31, 1862, as many black churches held Watch Night services, awaiting word that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would take effect amid a bloody Civil War. Later, congregations listened as the president’s historic words were read aloud.
The proclamation would not end slavery outright and at the time couldn’t be enforced by Lincoln in areas under Confederate control. But the president made clear from that day forward that his forces would be fighting to bring the Union back together without the institution of slavery.
Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, after the Battle of Antietam, announcing that if rebel states did not cease fighting and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious states or parts of states would be declared free from that date forward.
This year, the Watch Night tradition will follow the historic document to its home at the National Archives with a special midnight display planned with readings, songs and bell ringing among the nation’s founding documents.
The official document bears Lincoln’s signature and the United States seal, setting it apart from copies and drafts. It was scheduled to make a rare public appearance from Sunday to Tuesday – New Year’s Day – for thousands of visitors to mark its anniversary. On New Year’s Eve, the display was to remain open past midnight as 2013 arrives.
“We will be calling back to an old tradition,” said U.S. Archivist David Ferriero, noting the proclamation’s legacy. “When you see thousands of people waiting in line in the dark and cold … we know that they’re not there just for words on paper.”
The National Archives allows 100 visitors at a time into its rotunda, where the Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. On the busiest days, 8,000 people file through for a glimpse of the founding charters.
Performances and re-enactments were scheduled to continue throughout New Year’s Day. The U.S. Postal Service will unveil a new Emancipation Proclamation stamp as well.
This special display is just one of many commemorations planned in Washington and in churches nationwide to mark the anniversary of Lincoln’s actions to end slavery and end the Civil War.
President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, where the 16th president spent much of his time and where he began drafting the proclamation, is displaying a signed copy of the document through February. It also had its own New Year’s Eve celebration planned.
The Library of Congress will display the first draft handwritten by Lincoln. It will be on display for six weeks beginning Thursday in the library’s exhibit, “The Civil War in America.” History lovers say this occasion is a chance to remember what the Emancipation Proclamation actually signified.
Lincoln wrote in part: “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward, shall be free.”
Although it did not immediately free a single slave, many slaves had already been freeing themselves, and the document gave them protection, said Reginald Washington, an archivist of African-American history at the National Archives.
“It was a first, important step in paving the way for the abolishment of slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment,” he said.
It also brought “a fundamental change in the character of the war,” Washington said. “With the stroke of Lincoln’s pen, a war to preserve the union had overnight become a war of human liberation.”
The final proclamation has been rarely shown because it was badly damaged decades ago by long exposure to light. After it was signed at the White House, it was kept at the State Department for many years with other presidential proclamations. In 1936, it was transferred to the National Archives.
In the past decade, the Emancipation Proclamation has been shown in 10 other museums and libraries nationwide for no more than three days at a time to limit its exposure to light. A 2011 exhibition at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., that was open around the clock drew lines amounting to eight-hour waits to see the document.
Conservators rotate which of the five pages are shown to limit their light exposure. In Washington, they will display pages two and five, which is Lincoln’s signature page. High-quality copies are shown in place of the other original pages.
Catherine Nicholson, an archives conservator, said, “Our goal is to keep its current condition so that it can be enjoyed not only by people today, but by future generations.”
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