Wallace Willis

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Wallace Willis was a Choctaw freedman living in the Indian Territory, in what is now Choctaw County, near the city of Hugo, Oklahoma, US. His dates are unclear: perhaps 1820 to 1880. He is credited with composing (probably before 1860) several Negro spirituals.[1][2] Willis received his name from his owner, Britt Willis, probably in Mississippi, the ancestral home of the Choctaws. He died, probably in what is now Atoka County, Oklahoma, as his unmarked grave is located there.[3]

Before the Civil War Willis and his wife, Aunt Minerva, were sent by their owner to work at the Spencer Academy where the superintendent, Reverend Alexander Reid, heard them singing. In 1871 Reid was at a performance of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University and thought the songs he had heard the Willises singing were better than those of the Jubilee Singers. He furnished them to the group, which performed them in the United States and Europe.[4][5] Many are now famous, including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Steal Away To Jesus".

It is sometimes said that the songs credited to Willis had actually been written by unknown composers, but there is no record of any of the songs until they were performed by the Jubilee Singers.[6][7]


Swing Low, Sweet Chariot[edit]

"Swing Low Sweet Chariot"
Page from The Jubilee Singers (1873)
Writtencirca 1840
Songwriter(s)Wallace Willis

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was composed by Willis in what is now Choctaw County, near the County seat of Hugo, Oklahoma around 1840. He may have been inspired by the sight of the Red River, by which he was toiling, which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the Prophet Elijah being taken to heaven by a chariot (2 Kings 2:11).[8][9] In 2002, the US Library of Congress honored the song as one of 50 recordings chosen that year to be added to the National Recording Registry. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.


  1. ^ Wright, "Early Navigation and Commerce and etc.", p. 82: "It is an interesting fact that some of the negro spirituals which are today becoming widely known through musical programs over the radio, were composed by an old negro slave who belonged to Mr. Britt Willis, a prominent citizen of the Choctaw Nation and well-to-do slaveholder living in the vicinity of Doaksville." Doaksville, established in the early 1820s adjacent to Fort Towson, is a historical site operated by the State of Oklahoma.
  2. ^ Banks, "Narrative", p. 28: "My grandfather, Uncle Wallace, was a slave of the Wright fam'ly when dey lived near Doaksville, and he and my grandmother would pass de time by singing while dey toiled away in de cotton fields. Grandfather was a sweet singer. He made up songs and sung 'em. He made up 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' and 'Steal away to Jesus.' He made up lots more'n dem, but a Mr. Reid, a white man, liked dem ones de best and he could play music and he helped grandfather to keep dese two songs. I loves to hear 'em."
  3. ^ Oklahoma Historical Society, "Oklahoma Historic Sites Survey", p. 284: "Atoka County 9. Grave of "Uncle Wallace" Willis, Negro slave, composer of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," etc., unmarked in Negro cemetery about 1½ mi. S. Wilson School house."
  4. ^ Flickinger, pp. 25-26. "In 1871, when the Jubilee singers first visited Newark, New Jersey, Rev. Alexander Reid happened to be there and heard them. The work of the Jubilee singers was new in the North and attracted considerable and very favorable attention. But when Prof. White, who had charge of them, announced several concerts to be given in different churches of the city he added, 'We will have to repeat the Jubilee songs as we have no other.' When Mr. Reid was asked how he liked them he remarked, 'Very well, but I have heard better ones.' When he had committed to writing a half dozen of the plantation songs he had heard 'Wallace and Minerva' sing with so much delight at old Spencer Academy, he met Mr. White and his company in Brooklyn, New York, and spent an entire day rehearsing them. These new songs included, 'Steal away to Jesus,' 'The Angels are Coming,' 'I'm a Rolling,' and 'Swing Low.'"
  5. ^ "Michael Overall, How an Oklahoma slave came to write one of the world's most famous songs". Tulsa World, January 28, 2019. Retrieved January 28, 2019.
  6. ^ Flickinger, p. 25. "Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva were two of the colored workers that were employed at Spencer Academy, before the war. They lived together in a little cabin near it. In the summer evenings they would often sit at the door of the cabin and sing their favorite plantation songs, learned in Mississippi in their early youth."
  7. ^ Debo, Oklahoma, pp. 105–106: "Three Negro spirituals, well known and loved today, are said to have been composed in the 1840s 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."
  8. ^ "Story behind spiritual 'Swing Chariot' emerges". usatoday30.usatoday.com. Retrieved December 4, 2018.
  9. ^ "Michael Overall, How an Oklahoma slave came to write one of the world's most famous songs". Tulsa World, January 28, 2019. Retrieved January 28, 2019.


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