Celebrating ‘Watch Night’ at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington


“Watch meeting, Dec. 31, 1862--Waiting for the hour.” African American men, women, and children gathered around a man with a watch, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation. Cartes de Visite by Heard & Moseley, Boston, circa 1863. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

It’s not quite 10 p.m. and the hall is packed to the rafters, some 2,500 strong.

Some wear sequined gold tops or bright red prints. Some are clapping and swaying in jeans and sweaters, ready to shout in the new year. They are dancing in the aisles at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington.

It’s a New Year’s Eve celebration — but it’s also a Holy Ghost party, and an annual “Watch Night” tradition.

“Grab your neighbor and tell him, ‘We made it!’ ” co-pastor Jo Ann Browning exhorts from the pulpit. “Thank God that in 2012 we’ve been able to pray!”

Washington has all sorts of “watch nights”: watch the debates, watch the Oscars, watch RGIII take us into the playoffs. But Watch Night — the New Year’s services in black churches — has a long history, and, especially this year, it’s being reclaimed.

“The origins are really fascinating,” says Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “As the Emancipation Proclamation was going to take hold Jan. 1, 1863, there was a community of people who were watching for that moment.”

Free blacks in the North and slaves who had gotten word that Emancipation was coming gathered, mostly in churches, where it was safe, to wait.

The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (which is on public display through today at the National Archives) gives tonight’s service special meaning.

Senior Pastor Grainger Browning Jr. says Watch Night services typically draw thousands and have been among the year’s most popular church services. “I’m a member of [Omega Psi Phi fraternity],” says Browning, “and so the whole idea is to rival any Omega New Year’s Eve party I’ve been to. Church is not just a place to go and have quiet reflection.” Last year, Ebenezer congregants did the popular “Wobble” line dance at the altar, just to ward off wobbling into the new year.

“The history was kind of lost through the years,” Browning says. “It’s a night of celebration for what the Lord has done, but also in anticipation of what the Lord is getting ready to do.”

At Ebenezer, Watch Night 2012 celebrated not only the Emancipation Proclamation, but also the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and President Obama’s reelection ,(not to mention Washington’s making it into the NFL playoffs — this year Browning was wearing a No. 10 RGIII jersey). “Watch Night should be anticipating miracles because they’ve already happened,” he says.

Kamilah Dickens, 27, was celebrating with her 7-year-old-daughter. She said could have gone out to a club for the new year, but “I wanted to be at church with God.” Watch Night history, she says, brings a fullness to the service. “It makes it special and lets us know we need to be closer with our ancestors. It lets us know that we need to be here in church because they went through so much.”

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