To recognize African American History Month, as well as the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Megan Slack, Deputy Director of White House Digital Strategy talked with White House Curator Bill Allman about a painting called Watch Meeting--Dec. 31st 1862--Waiting for the Hour that hangs in the White House near the Oval Office in the West Wing.
The painting, done in 1863 by William Tolman Carlton, shows a group of African American men, women and children and one white woman, waiting for the clock to strike midnight -- the hour that the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect. The focus of the painting is a white-haired African American man holding a watch.
The storied painting contains symbolic elements such as a watch, capturing the essence of waiting and time; an anchor and a cross, both symbols of hope; an American flag, to signify the new nation; and the title of the Emancipation Proclamation and date painted across a long chain that underscores the length of the painting, to symbolize freedom and broken chains of bondage.
The painting formerly hung in what is now the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, a room that was actually President Abraham Lincoln’s office where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The original painting was given as a gift by William Lloyd Garrison to Lincoln in 1864 but was removed from the White House after President Lincoln's assassination. Later, a White House curator found another version of the painting, (as there are several versions), at a New York antique shop in 1975. Republicans presented this painting as a gift to the White House on the 200th anniversary of America's founding in 1976. The original painting had been made into a variety of cartes-de-visite, three by four inches post cards that were a very popular, inexpensive form of portraiture in Europe and the United States during the nineteenth century. Today, these old post cards are considered collector’s items!
Many enslaved African Americans had adapted the Methodist practice of “watch nights” as a spiritual ritual to help them cope with the horrors of slavery. Today, “watch night” services are a tradition for African Americans. Few of these churchgoers realize the direct connection between slavery and “watch night.” Check it out the video to learn why President Obama chose this painting to hang near his office in the West Wing.