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  • Jason Capp

The Strong Turnaround of New Year's Meaning to African-Americans

Updated: Dec 31, 2019

For African-Americans, New Year's Day used to be recognized as "Hiring Day", and with that, it carried a darkness that made it the most dreaded day for slaves.

New Year's Day is a holiday celebrated by many across the globe. It symbolizes new beginnings and fresh starts to those looking for such, and New Year's resolutions have become a standard phrase in our vocabulary.

However, before the Civil War and the abolishing of slavery in the US, January 1st was known by a different name among slaves. "Hiring Day", also known as "Heartbreak Day", was a day where slaves did not know what their masters were going to do with them. They were not sure if they would be rented out to someone else, and they were not sure if they would be separated from their families.

This practice was very common in the American South, because it was beneficial to the owners of slaves and served as a profitable practice.

Deals would be made privately among families, friends, and business contacts, and then the slaves were presented to the public in a town square or court steps to finalize. Some times they would even be traded away or rented out secretly on the side of the road.

We know all of this horrific nature, because records were collected and are preserved once freedom was secured for slaves. Many writings from the slaves themselves are haunting to read, as they beg and pray that their buyers would be humane and understanding, as well as allowing families to stay together.

One slave named Lewis Clarke even once said, "Of all the days in the year, the slaves dread New-Year's day the worst or any. For folks come for their debts then; and if anybody is going to sell a slave, that's the time they do it; and if anybody's going to give away a slave, that's the time they do it; and the slave never knows where he'll be sent to. Oh, New-Year's a heart-breaking time in Kentucky!"

It is also rumored that the idea of the New Year's resolution comes from this Hiring Day. The idea is that for the next year, that slave will be something "new" for the entire year until the next possible Hiring Day. To think that they had no choice in their annual change, while most people today give up on their resolutions within the first month.

The reason why it is also known as "Heartbreak Day" lends to the fact that parents were commonly separated from their children. Mothers would be brought to the auction block on New Year's with all of their children hoping that they would all stay together. The sad reality was that often times mothers would lose all of their children at these auctions or from private deals, and slave traders would not even tell the parents where their children just got sent off to.

Parents and children who refused to allow this horrible reality to take place would refuse to go to their new owners. If this case, slaves were whipped, beaten profusely, and even jailed in an attempt to crush their spirit and submit them to their new owner, new future, and new responsibilities.

Thankfully, New Year's Day is not all horror and bad omens for African-Americans. On January 1, 1808, the US federal ban on the transatlantic slave trade went into effect, bringing short-term relief to African-American communities in America.

Although this did not stop everything and slaves still faced terrors and a slew of problems, it began the process for major change.

New Year's Day became more and more associated with freedom than slavery from this time. Especially when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in all American states on New Year’s Day in 1863.

Slaves went to churches to pray, sing, and celebrate on Dec. 31, 1862. This began the tradition of New Year’s Eve prayer services at African-American churches nationwide that continue to this very day.

It is a powerful story of strength and perseverance that has enabled African-Americans over the history of the United States of America. To think that in the beginning of America's history, slaves hated and feared January 1st. Nowadays, January 1st celebrates real freedom and opportunity for their ancestors.

It is a powerful and humbling testimony. Let us remember to see the reality of New Year's Day's history; the good, the bad, and the ugly. It helps us to see how we are to continue change as we move forward, and it grounds us in a time that generally clouds our thinking and emotions.

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