December 31, 2021
New Year Traditions
From Watch Night to Food & Celebrations
New Year’s Eve party, c.1940-50s
Many are happy to see 2021 come to a close. From a sitting U.S. president refusing to accept the results of a 2020 election to the January 6th Capitol riots; climate change evidenced by fires, floods and tornados that swept the nation; death of loved ones; police brutality protests and an upswing in urban violence, 2021 saw groundbreaking COVID vaccines and a seemingly endless pandemic. But there have also been many signs for hope, renewal and the ability to adapt and change. As we move forward into 2022 at midnight tonight, please enjoy these fond memories of our HistoryMakers about past New Year Eves.  
Depiction of a New Year’s Eve Watch Night service, Grafton, Virginia, c. nineteenth century
We will start with Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook describing the popularity of Watch Night service: “We had a New Year's Eve service… Watch Night is a big popular service in the black church.”[1] Also known as “Freedom’s Eve,” Watch Night commemorates the awaiting of news of the Emancipation Proclamation on December 31, 1862. This tradition was followed by the late Hillside Chapel and Truth Center Founder Reverend Dr. Barbara L. King (1930 - 2020): “New Year's Eve is a big night at our churches, it's coming home night… every service somebody's flown in from somewhere.”[2] For social worker Valarie Justiss Vance (1913 – 2015), her preacher's predictions were the highlight: “We’d have these big December 31st meetings at the end of the year… Watch night services. And our preacher would have a favorite prediction that my father would get a big belly laugh out of every time he remembered them and would quote them. ‘I predict that people will die this year who never died before.’ (Laughter). So, the first person who died, ‘He said it, he said it.’”[3]
Left: The Jenkins Praise House, named for the nearby Mary Jenkins Plantation, built in 1900 and its then-pastor, Rev. Henderson, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 1995
Right: The Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters group performing, Willington, South Carolina, January 2019
Jazz saxophonist and composer Wendell Logan (1940 – 2010) described the Ring Shout tradition of Gullah origin, still practiced mainly in the South: “They simply just shout the new year in. There is a lot of food… mainly seafood, fresh fish and… crab and… it starts at the church… there is a sermon… And just before twelve o'clock, people break, they go over to the praise… [or] shout house… and music starts, people begin to shout and they shout all the way into the wee, wee hours of the morning, two and three o'clock in the morning.[4]
Left: Etta Moten Barnett's grandfather Moten, c.1800s
Right: Etta Moten Barnett (center) and her parents, Rev. Freeman Franklin Moten and Ida Mae Norman Moten, Los Angeles, California, September 15, 1915
Etta Moten Barnett (1901 – 2004), who played the legendary role of Bess in Porgy & Bess on Broadway, recalled this time as a time of homecoming as well: “Everybody came home [to her grandfather's farm in Winchester, Texas] from wherever they were at Christmas time. And… when New Year's came… after you had your celebration… with food and a good time together--we hadn't seen each other in a whole year--Grandpa, after the dinner… said, ‘Now, I tell you, I've seen everybody now. I'm glad you came, and I'll see you at another time. But… since I've seen you, you can take your children and go on home.’ (laughter)."[5] Opera singer Simon Estes also remembered a family tradition: “We were always together and we always worked a puzzle from the old year into the new year. We'd all get around the table and… we would book a puzzle.”[6]
Left: New Year’s Eve party, c.1950-60s
Right: New Year’s Eve party, c.1970s
Artist and activist Dinizulu Gene Tinnie recalled his parents' New Year's Eve parties: “Both she [his mother, Johanna Wittingham Tinnie] and my dad [Albert Tinnie] were… born to be in some form of hospitality, innkeepers or restaurateurs or something… of that nature… the story was that, particularly in Harlem, if you weren't at their New Year's Eve party, you really weren't… stepping.”[7] Motivational speaker George Cylie Fraser spoke of his own gatherings:  “We would give New Year's Eve parties and… Those were really my first big networking events… back in the late '60s [1960s] … we brought together, in the name of partying and socializing black professionals, business owners and community leaders but… it really was about connecting people… They called them parties with a purpose and they evolved from my home… to other places.”[8]
Left: Painting “Okra Gumbo,” by Mary Whyte, South Carolina, undated
Right: Dr. Alvin Poussaint’s family holiday photo, 1947. Back, left to right: siblings Richard, Delores, Clement, Lillian, Christopher, and Kenneth; front, left to right: Alvin, his father Christopher, little sister Julia, and mother Harriet Johnston.
In actress T'Keyah Crystal Keymah’s house, New Year’s Eve was the one holiday for friends: “The family came over on every other holiday except New Year's Eve. New Year's Eve it was friends, and they a party, and she [her grandmother, Mary Louis Zeno] made gumbo. And she was every bit of a Creole Louisiana girl (laughter) on New Year's Eve because she made some gumbo that… was the talk of the town.”[9] Psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint also shared their New Year’s Eve treats: “We always used to get together at twelve o'clock New Year's Eve and my mother's [Harriet Johnston Poussaint] the one who held that together and she would make eggnog and make homemade donuts and the whole family had to be there when the clock struck midnight, bringing in the New Year.”[10]
Left: A chitlins dish, photo by Mark Cockcroft, 2017
Right: Plate featuring ham hocks, greens, and black-eyed peas
For folk singer Ella Jenkins, homemade chitlins and black-eyed peas were always on the menu: “The big thing for New Year's… [is] cookin'… as some say ‘chitterlings’ but we said ‘chitlins’ and then I remember, people had this feeling about good luck and black-eyed peas.”[11] Academic administrator Owen Nichols (1929 – 2018) noted: “On New Year's Day, there was a tradition where you were supposed to cook black-eyed peas, and… of course they were cooked with ham hocks, and the more black-eyed peas one would eat on New Year's Day, the more money one was supposed to get during that year… And so, we would just eat as many black-eyed peas as we could get in our bodies (laughter).”[12]
Unidentified girl in a white dress, undated
Collector and librarian Vivian D. Hewitt had memories of being crowned Little Miss New Year 1927: “I was six years old in first grade… [And] I was… Little Miss New Year. There was a song, and I remember it too. And Ms. [Helen] Lyle brought her… white chiffon evening dress. And they stood me up on a big windowsill… and made this little costume for me. And I had a big band with gold ribbons across it like a beauty pageant saying 1927. And they taught me this song and dance: ‘I am the little New Year. Ho, ho, here I come tripping over the snow, shaking my bells with a merry din. So, open your door and let me in.’"[13]
90mm gun used during World War II, c.1939-1945
Appellate court judge Glenn T. Johnson (1917 - 2010) remembered a New Year’s Eve spent in Morocco during World War II: “They… took the 90mm guns and shot 'em off on New Year's Eve… The colonel said down where he came from, meaning Alabama… they always shot their guns at New Years' Eve, so it wasn't their fault because they had bigger guns this year than they had other years… [the sergeants got] a demotion for that. But they got their ranks back because they were good on the guns.”[14]
Alfreda Burke and Rodrick Dixon on their wedding day toasting (left) and jumping the broom (right), 1998
Others shared memories of a New Year’s as the start of a new part of one’s life. Operatic soprano Alfreda Burke began a road to marriage on New Year’s Day with singer and HistoryMaker Rodrick Dixon: “Rod and I found out that we had so many parallels… January [1993]… New Year's Day… we went to the movies, we went to the Lake Shore in Evanston [Illinois] at Lake Michigan and sat and watched the waves and… the ice beat against the shore and listen to all of the different styles of music that we loved and that was just a marathon date and we even read some literature and did a little bit of dancing and so that was just the beginning of a beautiful friendship and… we got married right after six years of a friendship.”[15]
Left: Leigh Jones styling for the Playboy Bunny of the Year contest, c. 1970s
Right: Oprah Winfrey’s debut on AM Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, January 2, 1984
Hairstylist Leigh Jones told the story of meeting Oprah Winfrey early in her career: “And so, when she [Oprah Winfrey] came to town, Dori Wilson, the PR person who is my best friend… called me… New Year's Day… and said, ‘oh you got to see the new girl who's coming into Chicago.’ … So, I turn on the TV and here's Oprah Winfrey... and she's got this little, short afro hairdo and a fur coat... And so I started doing her hair.”[16]
Left: Entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood, c.1980s
Right: Reuben Cannon, 2016
Casting director and television and film producer Reuben Cannon, who cast Oprah Winfrey in the movie The Color Purple, recalled getting his foot in the door in Hollywood one New Year’s Eve: “I rode the bus every day from Adams and Crenshaw [in Los Angeles, California] to Universal [Studios] and sat out in the lobby and waited for some department to be short… I decided to give it 'til New Years. New Year’s Eve, I'm sitting in the reception area of Universal Studios Personnel Department and Jim Harris… came out and said, ‘Reuben are you available?’ I said, ‘Yes I am.’ Two guys wanted to go skiing for the weekend as opposed to bag the mail. And I went… and became… A temporary employee of the mailroom… The mailroom was referred to as the executive training program. You needed a college degree to work in the mailroom. I didn't have a college degree. But… I'm from Chicago: ‘Let me in. I'll make my way.’"[17]
Whether you ring in 2022 at church or at a party, with friends or with family, we hope that you will shout in the New Year in the true Gullah of shouting and rejoicing, “‘It's a new year and I ain't gone, it's a new year and I ain't gone.’”[1]

2022, here we come!!!
[1] The Honorable Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook (The HistoryMakers A2005.251), interviewed by Adrienne Jones, July 24, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 6, The Honorable Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook recalls marrying Ronald Cook.
[2] Reverend Dr. Barbara L. King (The HistoryMakers A2004.172), interviewed by Jodi Merriday, September 21, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 10, Reverend Dr. Barbara L. King describes the congregation at Hillside International Chapel and Truth Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
[3] Valarie Justiss Vance (The HistoryMakers A2004.046), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, April 22, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Valarie Justiss Vance recalls her father’s impressions of the local Baptist minister.
[4] Wendell Logan (The HistoryMakers A2005.136), interviewed by Regennia Williams, June 13, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Wendell Logan describes the Gullah tradition of ring shouts.
[5] Etta Moten Barnett (The HistoryMakers A1999.005), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 4, 1993, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Etta Moten Barnett recalls her favorite childhood memory.
[6] Simon Estes (The HistoryMakers A2006.011), interviewed by Robert Hayden, February 6, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Simon Estes describes his family life growing up, pt. 2.
[7] Dinizulu Gene Tinnie (The HistoryMakers A2017.018), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 23, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Dinizulu Gene Tinnie describes his mother's high school experiences.
[8] George Cylie Fraser (The HistoryMakers A2005.009), interviewed by Regennia Williams, January 11, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, George Cylie Fraser talks about his social life in the 1970s and being named Ebony magazine's Most Eligible Bachelors.
[9] T'Keyah Crystal Keymah (The HistoryMakers A2004.194), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 6, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, T'Keyah Crystal Keymah describes influential figures during her childhood years.
[10] Dr. Alvin Poussaint (The HistoryMakers A2001.058), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 13, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Alvin Poussaint's family traditions dissolve upon his mother's death.
[11] Ella Jenkins (The HistoryMakers A2002.133), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 5, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Ella Jenkins recalls growing up in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.
[12] Owen Nichols (The HistoryMakers A2004.139), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, August 23, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Owen Nichols remembers childhood holiday traditions.
[13] Vivian D. Hewitt (The HistoryMakers A2003.136), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 18, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Vivian Hewitt talks about her favorite teachers in grade school.
[14] The Honorable Glenn T. Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2003.002), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 13, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Glenn Johnson talks about his military service in the U.S. Army during World War II, pt.1.
[15] Alfreda Burke (The HistoryMakers A2013.231), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 20, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 2, Alfreda Burke remembers meeting her husband, HistoryMaker Rodrick Dixon.
[16] Leigh Jones (The HistoryMakers A2004.097), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 19, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 1, Leigh Jones recalls doing Oprah Winfrey's hair when she worked for AM Chicago.
[17] Reuben Cannon (The HistoryMakers A2001.010), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, April 25, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Reuben Cannon navigates the Universal Studios mailroom.
[18] Wendell Logan (The HistoryMakers A2005.136), interviewed by Regennia Williams, June 13, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4.