The first migration from Mississippi to Indian Territory by the Choctaws and the slaves who accompanied them occurred in 1833. Most of these settled around Fort Towson near the Red River. Fort Towson had been built the same year as Fort Gibson and was intended to serve as protection of the tribes that were to be moved west.
An Irishman named Britt Willis accompanied his Choctaw wife to Indian Territory with a large number of slaves. He replicated his Mississippi plantation along the bank of the Red River where his field hands grew corn and cotton that could be shipped by riverboat to eastern markets.
Family tradition and the writing of missionaries tell the story of how two slaves on the Willis plantation came to compose some of the best known Negro spirituals. Wallace and his wife Minerva were gifted singers by all accounts and would lift their voices in song while working in the fields. One hot day in August, so the story goes, Wallace was working in the field and looked across the long rows of cotton to the glistening Red River. He began to sing a new song, composing the words as he worked.
The song began, “Swing low, sweet chariot.” This spiritual would eventually come to be regarded as one of the best and most famous of the “plantation songs” composed in cotton fields across the South.
“Swing Low” was likely composed in the summer of 1840. A few years later, Britt Willis hired Wallace and Minerva out to a Choctaw boys’ school called Spencer Academy located a few miles to the north. The director of the school, the Rev. Alexander Reid, quickly recognized that Wallace and Minerva were gifted singers and he often asked them to sing at the school. Taken with their beautiful songs, Reid wrote down the words to about a dozen of them and memorized the melodies.
Spencer Academy closed at the outset of the Civil War. Reid took his family back home to Princeton, New Jersey. Wallace and Minerva were freed by the 1866 Reconstruction Treaty and settled near Doaksville.
In 1871, an a cappella group called the Fisk Jubilee Singers were touring New England to raise funds for their school, Fisk University in Nashville. The Rev. Reid attended one of their concerts in Newark and learned that this new singing group had a limited repertoire. Remembering the songs of Wallace and Minerva, he offered to teach them to the Jubilee Singers.
Reid had no musical training so he had not committed the songs to sheet music. All he could do was sing the songs through several times until the group had learned them.
Two years later the Jubilee Singers toured Europe, and the spirituals composed by Wallace and Minerva in Indian Territory were their most popular and most requested songs.
Today, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is still sung around the world and is arguably one of the best known spirituals ever composed. It is another of Oklahoma’s rich and wide contribution to the world of music.