Wallace and Minerva Willis and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

When slaves Wallace and Minerva Willis traveled the Choctaw Trail of Tears from either Mississippi or Alabama in the early 1830s with their owner, Choctaw Brett Willis, no one knew one of the greatest song composers in American history was moving to the future state of Oklahoma.


The Willises settled on land near Doaksville, now a ghost town in the middle of a forest just north of Fort Towson, in present Choctaw County, in far southeastern Oklahoma. “Uncle” Wallace and “Aunt” Minerva toiled in the cotton fields for Brett and lived in their own cabin not far from his house. Wallace composed “plantation songs” as he worked, adjusting them as he sang, Minerva joining in.


They also worked at Spencer Academy, a boarding school for Choctaw children several miles northwest, near modern Spencerville. Presbyterian missionaries, including its Superintendent Alexander Reid, a Princeton Theological Seminary graduate and native of Scotland, ran Spencer. The young Choctaws adored Wallace and Minerva and how they sang as they worked. In the evenings, work and studies done for the day, they delighted the children by sitting in their cabin door and singing songs for them.


The oral histories say that one day, as Wallace worked in the cotton fields under a blazing sun, he gazed out at Red River flowing in the distance. It reminded his Scripture-steeped mind of the River Jordan in old Israel. He remembered the Old Testament account of God sweeping the great prophet Elijah up into heaven from near the Jordan, with a fiery chariot and team of horses. And so Wallace Willis imagined and sang his way into history, apparently authoring one of the mightiest hymns of the Christian faith ever penned, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.


What evidence supports Willis’s authorship of the hymn? His descendants claimed such, and famed Oklahoma historian Angie Debo wrote:


“Three Negro spirituals, well known and loved today, are said to have been composed in the 1840's by ‘Uncle’ Wallace Willis, a slave on a large plantation near Doaksville in the Choctaw Nation. The actual authorship and origin of spirituals can seldom actually be credited to individuals, but it is a matter of record that ‘Uncle’ Willis sang Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Steal Away to Jesus, and I'm A Rollin’ as he worked in the cotton fields of Reverend Alexander Reid, superintendent of a Choctaw boarding school.”


And no evidence, witnesses, or written record exists of anyone singing the song earlier.


When the War Between the States descended upon the Indian Nations in 1861, John Kingsbury, son of Cyrus Kingsbury, one of the Presbyterian missionary leaders to the Choctaws, transported Wallace, Minerva, and some of their own children farther south to Old Boggy Depot for their safety. The Wallaces remained there for the duration of the war and after.


Reid and his wife, meanwhile, like fellow Northern Presbyterian missionary couples such as Sophie and Cyrus Byington and Electa and Cyrus Kingsbury (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 5), defied the threats of brutal combat, disease, malnutrition, poverty, and even the orders of their New England mission boards to leave the Choctaw country unless the Indians renounced the practice of slavery. The Reids endured the entire war with the Indians they loved. They remained at Spencer until Mrs. Reid died in 1869. Facing the difficulties of widowerhood, grief, and single parenthood, Reid took his children to the New Jersey of his upbringing, in part for their education.


Had these difficult events not occurred in the lives of the Reid family, Alexander would never have witnessed the renowned Jubilee Singers, an African American men’s choir from Fisk College, perform. He would never have been asked by the president of that school his opinion of their songs. He would never have responded, “Very well, but I have heard better ones.”


He would never then have put on paper his remembrance of six of those “better ones,” from the creative imagination of Wallace Willis, including Swing Low, Steal Away to Jesus, Roll, Jordan, Roll, The Angels Are Coming, and I’m a Rolling. And the Jubilee Singers would never have traveled the world, literally, singing and spreading them, including to England’s Queen Victoria, monarch of the world’s greatest empire.


Historian Judith Michener recounted how Reid, lacking any musical training, wrote down the lyrics on paper and sang them to the Jubilee Singers over and over, until they committed them to memory. Queen Victoria, meanwhile, asked the choir for an encore of Steal Away to Jesus.


Back in the old Choctaw country, Reid developed a deep love for the former slaves of the Choctaws. The Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board appointed him Superintendent of foreign mission work among these freedmen in Indian Territory. He organized schools for their children, established the Oak Hill Boarding School for them, and set about developing them as teachers.


Perhaps Robert Flickinger penned the greatest epitaph for remarkable Oklahoma pioneers Wallace and Minerva Willis in his classic work, Choctaw Freedmen:


“When one thinks of the two old slaves singing happily together at the door of their humble cabin, amid the dreary solitudes of Indian Territory, and the widely extended results that followed, he cannot help perceiving in these incidents a practical illustration of the way in which our Heavenly Father uses ‘things that are weak’ for the accomplishment of his gracious purposes. They also serve to show how little we know of the future use God will make of the lowly service any of us may be rendering.”

 

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot


Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home,

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home.


I looked over Jordan and what did I see,

Coming for to carry me home?

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home.


If you get there before I do,

Coming for to carry me home,

Tell all my friends I’m coming too,

Coming for to carry me home.


The brightest day that ever I saw,

Coming for to carry me home.

When Jesus washed my sins away,

Coming for to carry me home.


I’m sometimes up and sometimes down,

Coming for to carry me home,

But still my soul feels heavenly bound,

Coming for to carry me home…

 

The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Ancient-Statehood

which can be purchased HERE.


View the inspiring preview video HERE.

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