Happy New Year, or as The Rev. Jesse Jackson reminded America in a New Year’s opinion piece published Tuesday in the New York Times, Jan. 1 for Black people is really our Emancipation Day.
Rev. Jackson skillfully put forth the history and significance of the Watch Night Service, when Black Americans gather in churches across the country on New Year’s Eve to give thanks and to testify about how their faith brought them through another year. The tradition, however, goes back 156 years and is tied to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that promised freedom for the enslaved Black man, woman and child, beginning on Jan. 1, 1863. On the night before, the free and enslaved “sat vigil in churches, in shabby slave shacks and in moonlit plantation woods to watch, pray and hope,” Jackson wrote, that freedom would truly be theirs. But while slavery ended by law on that day, the vestiges of America’s most inhumane and brutal institution remain.
This new year also marks slavery’s beginning 400 years ago when the White Lion, a Dutch man-of-war ship carrying a cargo of 20 Africans captured in Angola in West Africa, landed at Point Comfort, now Fort Monroe, near Jamestown, Virginia in August 1619.
In 2017, the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act, introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, Roy Blunt and Cory Booker and later introduced in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott and others, authorized the U.S. Department of the Interior to plan programs and activities across the Nation to recognize the contributions of African Americans since their first arrival as African slaves.
We recognize that many Americans, Black and White, would rather not be reminded — not in film, art, dialogue or any other form — about the past. It’s painful and the scars are raw and remain unhealed from an institution that lasted nearly 300 years, only ending 156 years ago. As others commit to remembering their painful past, we strongly encourage and urge Black Americans to not only remember but to give honor to those who suffered, fought and died on behalf of future generations.
We agree with Scott when he testified, “It would be a great disservice not only to African Americans but to all Americans, if we fail to appropriately recognize this important milestone in our nation’s history” and if we neglect to ensure “the true legacy of African Americans will be truthfully told.”