Commemorate freedom with New Year
Dec. 31, 1862, 150 years ago — the word was out in the slave quarters of the Old Natchez District: Freedom might be only a few miles away.
Yankee gunboats were being seen on the Mississippi River passing by Natchez. Yankee guns were being heard at Chickasaw Bayou north of Vicksburg. President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation issued in September had said that freedom for the enslaved would arrive on Jan. 1, 1863.
But in the context of an ongoing Civil War, freedom would have to be fought for. Enslaved people still gathered in the hush arbors (secret meeting places of enslaved people) to learn the latest about the progress of freedom.
It could not be sung about too loudly yet. Chickasaw Bayou could yet turn into another setback and defeat for Union forces, but still … Be still child! Wait! Wait ’til the midnight hour!
Meanwhile, you could steal yourself away to freedom if you waded in the water so the hounds couldn’t catch you.
The watch night services held in many Christian churches today usher in the New Year for the faithful.
Many recognize the roots of these services as stretching back to that night at the end of 1862 when President Lincoln’s executive order would theoretically free those enslaved people who were — as of that date — still in bondage behind the lines of the rebellion of the Confederate States of America.
People of African descent in the Confederate states would no longer be branded contrabands of war, but recognized by Union forces as free people.
The Proclamation created a powerful incentive for enslaved people to get to Union lines, especially to join the Union Army and Navy and fight for the freedom of all.
Data indicates that from the State of Mississippi, 18,000 people of African origin fought in support of freedom and the Union.
More than 3,000 would accompany U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant when 5,000 Union troops occupied the City of Natchez to protect, defend and preserve our jewel city.
The Emancipation Proclamation would change the nature of the Civil War from a war for the Union, to a war also being fought for freedom and the end of slavery in the United States as Confederate forces were defeated in specific areas.
In Natchez, that was not a reality for most enslaved people until the city’s occupation by federal troops in July 1863.
This year, there will be a special freedom celebration at the Natchez City Auditorium.
A mass inter-denominational choir will sing the spirituals sung by the enslaved during their quest for freedom, and the songs of jubilee that may have been heard on New Year’s Eve 1862.
Many of these songs concealed hidden messages that applied specifically to the enslaved. Those secret messages will be revealed. The service will last approximately 90 minutes.
Watch night services will still be held in many area churches at their usual time as the midnight hour approaches, but the descendants of the enslaved, the descendants of slave owners and everyone else in the community are all invited to the Natchez City Auditorium to participate in this one-time sesquicentennial observance at 6 p.m., Dec. 31 — exactly 150 years after the prospect of freedom arrived for all Americans.
This free event is a project of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African American Culture, Natchez National Historical Park and Mission Mississippi.
Darrell White is the director of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African American Culture.