For many people all over the world, January 1, represents a new beginning and a period of renewed vigor to face the new year.
However, for the enslaved Blacks laboring on various plantation farms years before the Civil War, the new year was a period of great anxiety as they were either hired out to a new master or sold outrightly. The transfer was particularly depressing for the man or woman being transferred since that will be the last time sons, daughters or even love partners are seeing each other.
According to African-American abolitionist and journalist William Cooper Nell, enslaved people spent New Year’s Eve waiting, wondering if their owners were going to rent them out to someone else, thus potentially splitting up their families. The renting out of slave labor was a relatively common practice in the antebellum South, and a profitable practice for white slave owners.
Alexis McCrossen, an expert on the history of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and a professor of history at Southern Methodist University noted: “‘Hiring Day’ was part of the larger economic cycle in which most debts were collected and settled on New Year’s Day.”
“Some enslaved people were put up for auction that day, or held under contracts that started in January. (These transactions also took place all year long and contracts could last for different amounts of time.) These deals were conducted privately among families, friends and business contacts, and slaves were handed over in town squares, on courthouse steps and sometimes simply on the side of the road, according to Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South by Jonathan D. Martin.”
The effect of the New Year’s Day transfer in the African-American community was so strongly felt, it was branded as “Hiring Day” or “Heartbreak Day.”
According to a slave named Lewis Clarke, “Of all days in the year, the slaves dread New Year’s Day the worst of any,”.
Then there is Israel Campbell, who wrote in a memoir published in 1861 in Philadelphia that he was hired out thrice as was this account, “That’s where that sayin’ comes from that what you do on New Year’s Day you’ll be doin’ all the rest of the year,” by a former slave known as Sister Harrison in a 1937 interview.
Harriet Jacobs wrote a particularly detailed account in “The Slaves’ New Year’s Day” chapter of her 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. “Hiring-day at the south takes place on the 1st of January. On the 2[n]d, the slaves are expected to go to their new masters,” she wrote. She observed slave owners and farmers renting out their human chattel for extra income during the period between the cotton and corn harvests and the next planting season. From Christmas to New Year’s Eve, many families would “wait anxiously” to find out whether they would be rented out, and to whom. On New Year’s Day, “At the appointed hour the grounds are thronged with men, women, and children, waiting, like criminals to hear their doom pronounced,” Jacobs wrote.
On one of these fateful days Jacobs saw “a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all.” The slave trader who took the children wouldn’t tell her where he was taking them because it depended on where he could get the “highest price.” Jacobs said she would never forget the mother crying out, “Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?”
Enslaved people who attempted to resist going to their new masters were whipped and thrown in jail until they relented and promised not to run away during the new arrangement.
The holiday became more associated with freedom than slavery when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate states on New Year’s Day in 1863. Slaves went to church to pray and sing on Dec. 31, 1862, and that’s why there are still New Year’s Eve prayer services at African-American churches nationwide.