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For some time now, I’ve admired the life of a 19th century missionary, Sheldon Jackson, whose name I found on a monument up top of Prospect Hill, Sioux City, Iowa. Jackson was a little Presbyterian powerhouse who, at one time, prayed right there up on the hill that the Lord would prosper the church’s mission efforts and “win the west for Christ,” or so the monument claims. Amazing.
Jackson’s first job, out of Princeton, was a largely unsuccessful teaching position at a Spencer School, for Choctaw boys, in Indian Territory, where he likely met Wallace and Minerva Willis. Their story you just can’t help love. For Black History Month, let me try, humbly, to do it justice.
The “Five Civilized Tribes” on the Trail of Tears weren’t dressed in breech cloths. Some wore suits and vests, some women wore dresses. For years, they’d been neighbors–even friends–of white folks moving into the Southern states, more assimilated into American culture than you might imagine. But they’d become, as all Native people were to white folks, in the way, so President Andrew Jackson and his own Congressional hostiles moved them out to what would become Oklahoma. Of the 15,000 Creeks, 3500 were buried on the trail.
They’d all come from Dixie, where some had owned the land they’d farmed and were often wealthy enough to own slaves they brought with them to Indian Territory. Homesick and heartsick, slaves and Indigenous slave-holders alike were soon impoverished, which is why the Omaha lived in fear of being deported and why the Northern Cheyenne flat refused, chose death instead.
Alexander Reid, a graduate of Princeton, took a teaching position after seminary and was sent to the Spencer School in the years before the Civil War. Reid got to know an ex-slave couple named Wallace and Minerva Willis, who had belonged to a Choctaw man who finally gave the older couple to Rev. Reid for employment at his school.
Wallace and Minerva were pure delight to the school boys, who loved to hear their “plantation songs,” the spirituals they’d taken along from the cotton fields. After supper, the Willises would sit together on their front porch and sing through a repertoire Rev. Reid himself grew to love so generously he took down lyrics and melodies because he didn’t want those plantation songs forgotten once Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva stopped their singing altogether.
When Rev. Reid’s wife died, he left Oklahoma and returned to New Jersey, where one night he attended a concert by a small choir called the Fisk Jubilee Singers–and a repertoire composed of only “plantation songs.” When it was over, the Fisk choirmaster told the audience where they’d be singing over the next weekend, then warned the crowd that what the choir had offered that night were all the songs they knew. If people decided to attend another concert on the Singers’ tour, he said they shouldn’t be surprised to hear the same melodies because what they’d heard was all they had, or so he told the audience.
Alexander Reid sauntered up to the choirmaster later and told him and some singers that he knew songs just as worthy, just as beautiful as anything he’d heard that night. From memory, he taught them a few melodies from Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva, including two you may have heard of, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away.” And there were more.
You’ve heard them maybe?
For decades, ethnographers have insisted that “Negro spirituals” were less “spiritual” than they were deftly disguised and heartfelt slave dreams of freedom.
I’d like to think those ethnologists are right, that “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” may be as much a wish for freedom as it is for heaven’s glory.
But whatever import may be in those call-and-response lyrics–“comin’ forth to carry me home”—history makes clear that, as quickly as they could, the Fisk Jubilee Singers began including Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva’s blessed front porch melodies in their concerts, including a concert they gave later, a concert all the way in England, for Queen Victoria.
From an evening solace on the porch of two beloved ex-slaves in Indian Territory, across the pond to the royals at Buckingham Palace, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” soon enough became one of the most beloved songs in world musical literature.
That’s not a big story and not a bit shocking; but I don’t know that we can tell it often enough or listen close enough to those famous hymns about the triumph of hope we need to carry along on own tearful trails.