*While widely condemned and even outlawed in some cities today, the tradition (common in many predominantly Black communities) of firing guns into the air to celebrate the start of a new year may have had a positive historical beginning.
African Americans must remember that December 31st is also “Watch Night” or “Freedom’s Eve” – the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect and nominally freeing the slaves.
The first Watch Night took place on December 31, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. However, it did not become the law of the land until January 1, 1863. Thus, on December 31, 1862, thousands of free Blacks throughout the nation gathered in churches and other locations to celebrate the official end of slavery in America by “watching” the New Year and freedom come in.
The focal celebratory point was the Rochester, New York home of the great anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglas. The historical record is not entirely clear on this point but it appears that most of the celebrations (especially among the more sophisticated free Blacks) involved prayer and various forms of worship. However, there is strong evidence that less sophisticated free Blacks celebrated with alcohol and gunfire. Thus a tradition was born.
As for the slaves, today’s Blacks must realize that prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, New Year’s Eve was a very solemn and sad occasion for their ancestors. It was the day that slave owners settled business accounts for the New Year. Debts had to be paid and often this was done by selling slaves and splitting up families. Thus, many Black slave families lived in dread of New Year’s Eve.
The Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation pretty much put an end to the practice of splitting up families and selling off young Blacks – often never to be seen again. Most slaves may not have had a full understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation but they knew a war was going on and that changes were taking place.
Plus, even during slavery Blacks were communicating with one another. Via the Underground Railroad and other methods, slaves were frequently able to learn what free Blacks and white abolitionists were doing on their behalf. They would later copy the practices and ceremonies of the freedman.
Today, the problem is that the Blacks firing guns never attend Watch Night ceremonies (which still take place in many African American churches) nor have any idea that they may have converted a positive historical tradition into a night of danger in many cities around the nation.