Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" Is An Oklahoma Song

Armstrong Academy (1861 Civil War Map) in SE Oklahoma
Many people don't realize some of America's most colorful history occurred in what was formerly called Indian Territory, but now the State of Oklahoma. Oklahoma is a Choctaw Indian word which means "red people."

The U.S. States government removed 5 Civilized Indian Tribes to Indian Territory during the 1830s through the Indian Removal Act.

Christian, caucasian missionaries moved with the Indian tribes from the east to Indian Territory, risking life and limb to continue their evangelical work among the Native Americans. Some of the most moving missionary stories throughout world history occurred within Oklahoma.

It is a little known fact the 5 Civilized Tribes brought with them black slaves during the 1830s. The 5 Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw) were called "Civilized" because they had begun to farm, educate their children, and obtain occupations typically associated with civilization; giving up traditional Indian culture.

Living in southern states throughout the eastern portion of America, the Civilized Tribes used slaves to sow and harvest their crops. Those slaves came with their Indian masters to Oklahoma.

In my home office, I have an Indian Territory Map from 1861 (see picture upper left). Circled in red is a place called Armstrong Academy.

This Choctaw Indian school was established by Christian Missionaries in the 1840s to educate Choctaw children. In 1845, the Domestic (Home) Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention took over the operation of Armstrong Academy.
Spencer Academy (Indian Territory)

Just a few miles south of Armstrong Academy, sitting near the Red River, was another Christian
school for the education of Choctaw Indian children called Spencer Academy.

Wallace Willis and his wife Minerva were two African-American slaves working at Spencer Academy before the war.

"Uncle Wallace" and "Aunt Minerva," as the Choctaw students liked to call them, lived in a little cabin near the school.

During the pleasant evenings, Wallace and Minerva would sit at the door of the cabin and sing songs that they'd composed about slavery and deliverance, going home to heaven, and eternal rest. Uncle Wallace composed the words and Aunt Minerva would sing along with him, using melodies they were familiar with from their old days on Mississippi plantations. Sometimes the Indian students would come to their house and listen to the singing. The songs composed by Uncle Wallace became well-known "negro spirituals" (as they were later called) including, "Roll, Jordan, Roll," "Steal Away to Jesus," "I'm A-Rollin', I'm A-Rollin'," "The Angels Are A-Comin'" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Many believe that Wallace Willis' song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" may have been inspired by the sight of the nearby Red River which reminded him of the biblical Jordan River and of the Prophet Elijah's being taken to heaven in a chariot (2 Kings 2:11). Some sources claim that this song and "Steal Away" also composed by Wallis Willis, have lyrics that referred to the Underground Railroad, the freedom movement that helped black people escape from Southern slavery to the North and Canada

In 1849 Rev. Alexander Reid came to the Spencer Academy from back east to serve as a missionary to the Indians and superintendent of the school. Shortly after his arrival, Rev. Reid heard Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva singing one evening from their front porch. He stopped and listened to the beautiful music. Then, the superintendent came to sit with Wallis and Minerva on the porch and asked them to sing their songs again. This time, Rev. Reid pulled out pen and paper and wrote down the words of the songs he heard. He would later say he'd never heard songs from the soul as beautiful as he head that night.

Rev. Reid and his family grew to love Uncle Wallis and Aunt Minerva and their music.

When the Civil War began in 1861, John Kingsbury, son of Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, took Wallace, Minerva, and some of their children to nearby Old Boggy Depot for protection.

Later in 1861, Rev. Reid's wife died after bearing their third child. In 1869 Reid and his two surviving children returned to Princeton, New Jersey

In 1871 Rev. Alexander Reid was at a performance of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Newark, New Jersey. Rev. Reid thought the songs he had heard Uncle Wallis and Aunt Minerva sing back in Indian Territory were better than the songs sung by the Jubilee Singers.

After the concert, Professor White (program director of the Jubilee Singers) asked the prominent Rev. Alexander Reid how he liked the songs he heard that night, Rev. Reid remarked,

“Very well, but I have heard better ones.”

When asked where he'd heard these "better" songs, the former superintendent of Spencer Academy told the story of Uncle Wallis and Aunt Minerva.

Professor White asked Rev. Reid to write down the words to some of the songs he'd heard and teach the Jubilee singers how to sing them.  Rev. Reid agreed and later met the Professor and the singers in Brooklyn to teach them. They spent an entire day learning and rehearsing the songs which included:

“Steal Away to Jesus.”
“The Angels are Coming,”
“I’m a Rolling,”
“Swing low, Sweet Chariot.”

The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University made the songs of Uncle Willis and Aunt Minerva traveled the world during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, singing the Indian Territory slave songs they'd learned, even performing a concert for the Queen of England.

Today, many Americans know the songs, but don't know where they originate.

Next time you hear "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" or other spirituals written by Uncle Wallis, remember that God is able to use people in the lowest circumstances to get a message heard around the world.


Rex Ray said...


Fantastic history!

Visiting my brother in Seattle.


Wade Burleson said...

Have fun, Rex - and safe travels!

Christiane said...


while you're in Seattle visiting your brother, you might have a chance to also see the great open food market I've been told about by my son. . . . apparently, it's rather spectacular.

I hope your brother is doing better. Take care of yourself up there in the Pacific Northwest, there's BEARS around. :)

wonderful post about that beloved spiritual . . . . people would never guess it's real origin and it is a remarkable story.
Oklahoma has a lot to be proud of, being in the 'heartland' of our nation. May it always treasure its history and its character that is uniquely American.

Micah Atwood said...


Yes, bear sign found 50 yards from where Hez stays with his daughter. Trees are 50 feet high.