Willis, Wallace (Wallis)

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. 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.

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. 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.

The history of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is fascinating. In Mississippi during the first half of the 19th century, there lived a wealthy, half-Irish, half-Choctaw slave-owner named Britt Willis. When Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Willis, like tens of thousands of other Native Americans throughout the South, was forced to relocate to a territory in present day Oklahoma. He brought his slaves with him. Two of his slaves, Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva, were musically inclined, and while in bondage in Oklahoma, they composed a number of spirituals, including Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I’m A Rolling, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Reverend Alexander Reid, the superintendent of a local Choctaw school near Doaksville, Oklahoma, where Willis and his slaves had settled, overheard Wallace and Minerva singing these spirituals, and he was so moved by them that he notated them and wrote down their lyrics. Years later, he delivered handwritten copies of both Steal Away to Jesus and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to the Jubilee Singers at Fisk University (an all-black college established in Nashville, TN at the end of the Civil War), who performed them on national tours during the late 19th century.

And the story does not end there. In the 1880s and 1890s, Czech composer Antonín Dvorák was hired by the National Conservatory of Music to come to the United States and begin developing an American strain of classical music. After hearing the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform one night, he asked his African-American assistant, Henry Burleigh, to collect as many spirituals as he could for his own analysis. To Dvorák, spirituals seemed the perfect source material for American classical music. He used the melody of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in his Symphony No. 9 (1893), The New World Symphony, which went on to become one of the most popular and frequently performed symphonies in the world.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot became ingrained in the national public consciousness when it became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Its influence was so important that, in 2011, Oklahoma State Senator Judy Eason McIntyre introduced a bill nominating the spiritual for official gospel song of the state of Oklahoma. The sitting governor signed the bill into law on May 5, 2011 at the Oklahoma Cowboy Hall of Fame. The “Oklahoma Historic Sites Survey” references his grave like this; “‘Uncle Wallace’ Willis, Negro slave, composer of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, etc., unmarked in Negro cemetery about 1½ mi. S. Wilson School House.”

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