Wilmington church hosts Gullah Geechee Watch Night and Emancipation Day Celebration

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) – The community gathered on Saturday at the Warner Temple AME Zion Church for a Gullah Geechee Watch Night and Emancipation Day Celebration.

The celebration kicked off with ritual drumming from the African American Dance Ensemble, followed by DL Ministries’ performance of Song of Gathering, then a prayer.

According to Watch Night Celebration Initiative Program Manager Angel Parson, the event was filled with performers and speakers with North Carolina ties.

“We were delighted to actually have folks who are from North Carolina – culture keepers be a part of the program and support it,” she said.

The tradition started on December 31, 1862, when enslaved Gullah Geechee people gathered in scared spaces, such as churches, to await the New Year that would signal the end of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln which would go into effect on the first of that year, that day is now celebrated as Freedom’s Eve.

“We call it Freedom’s Eve, and we call it that watch because they were waiting for the hour for January one to come because they knew that would mark their freedom,” said Parson.

Freedom’s Eve Commemoration has been celebrated in Charleston since 2018, Parson is happy to bring the event service to Wilmington for the first time, with the goal of having a Freedom’s Eve in every state of the Gullah Geechee Corridor, which stretches from North and South Carolina down to Georgia and Florida.

“The idea is for us to work with our partners in the area, with those that are already doing the work, those who are already connected to the culture really making this tradition impactful in their area and really learn about the culture of Freedom’s Eve.”

Leland Town Council Member Veronica Carter is a member of the host church and has worked with people of Gullah Geechee descent for years – and said it’s important to preserve and protect the culture and heritage.

“To be honored with the first Watch Night service, Freedom’s Eve service in North Carolina is just remarkable,” she said. “It just seemed to be a lot of warmth and a lot of good education, a lot of information, and of course a lot of good music too.”

Cater invited Leland Town Council Member Bill McHugh to attend the celebration.

“This is such an important culture to our area, to our entire region, and it was forgotten and neglected for so long that a chance to celebrate it, and to learn more about it, and to take part in something like this is an opportunity I didn’t want to miss,” he said.

Celebration Emcee Professor Eric Crawford, from South Carolina, authored books on the Gullah Geechee culture and said some don’t realize North Carolina has a rich Gullah Geechee history.

“It’s good to give more recognition to North Carolina being that it’s oftentimes overlooked, the Gullah Geechee part of the corridor,” he said.

Invited, were speakers and performers from all walks of life who traveled from all areas of the Cape Fear Region and South Carolina, including Rabbi Emily Losban-Ostrov with the Temple of Israel, who was feeling under the weather and couldn’t make it.

“To sit there with greatness, to see the people perform and talk and preach and sing, it was just an honor,” said Ruben Astrov. “It humbled me to be there, and for me to stand there and give my wife’s message, and my little piece as well.”

According to North Carolina NAACP President Deborah Dix Maxwell, the event is about re-establishing the Freedom Eve Program in the region by the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission.

“This an important historic day for African Americans all across the country, especially the southeast and northeast because this is the day that we found out about our freedom,” she said. “So we have to celebrate that day into the turning of the New Year where we are hoping there will be new blessings for our people, and ourselves.

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