Dag W. Walker
The world famous and much loved Earl Ronald founded the red sandstone Norman-style cathedral of St Magnus back in 1137 in memory of his uncle Jarl Magnus who was assassinated in the island of Egilsay in 1115.1. That was back in what my grandparents called “The Old Country.” The cathedral is still there, beyond the northern shores of Scotland, in the middle of the island it shares with Skara Brae, a Stone Age settlement of five or six families. Maes Howe is nearby, and the Ring of Brodgar is close. Around 1909 my family had had enough of poverty and misery. They packed it in and went south, to Scotland itself, to less poverty, less misery. My great grandfather lost his toes to disease in the Great War. His wife died young. The others, one a short, fierce looking fellow with a serious moustache and glaring eyes, stands with his ample wife, her hair pulled so tight into a bun one wonders how her nose didn’t split open across the tintype picture. Hard folks. Even so, they were looking for a way out, to the Promised Land. They yearned to go to America to start a new life, by steerage, huddled in the hull of a ship crossing the north Atlantic Ocean, the risk of death very real. They looked to the future in a state of hope. Thank God the family finally made it, long, long later. I would have hated being a Scotsman. They suffered and died, but hope lived on; and because of them, I live life as a free man.
What was the world like way back in 1909? In 1909 The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in New York City. By 1909, the government of Liberia was bankrupt and forced to borrow money again, mostly from the United States. In 1909, Arthur Barclay, mayor of Monrovia from 1892 until 1902, was the 15th Liberian President. And, in 1909, the Fisk Choir made the first recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”2.
Most adults know the song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” even atheists who don’t know much about anything else. Even those who know a lot about many things are unfamiliar with the name Wallis Willis. Let’s face it, the Fisk Jubilee Singers are about as familiar to most educated people as is Jarl Rognvald (Earl Ronald) of somewhere north of Scotland. Unlike Jarl what’s-his-name– or even Scotland– Wallis Willis deserves to be remembered. Willis did good things for all in a hard world. He wrote the world’s most famous Gospel song ever. The Fisk Jubilee Singers made the first recording of Willis’s song. They deserve to be remembered, too.
Historians believe Wallace is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the old Doaksville Cemetery, east of Hugo and just a few miles north of the Oklahoma cotton field where he wrote his world-famous masterpiece.3.
Wallis Willis. The years of his life aren’t known exactly, perhaps from 1820 to 1880. Willis might have been born in Mississippi. Willis was a slave. He got a name from his slaver, a Choctaw native, Britt Willis, probably in Mississippi, the ancestral home of the Choctaws. When the native Indians of the southeast were forcibly removed during the “Trail of Tears,” the slaver took Willis with him to Oklahoma, where Willis and his wife Minerva lived in the old Indian Territory in what is now Choctaw County near the County seat of Hugo, Oklahoma sometime after 1865. Willis died, probably in what is now Atoka County, Oklahoma, as his unmarked grave is located there.4.
Before the Civil War, slaver Brit Willis rented Willis and his wife, Aunt Minerva to Spencer Academy for Choctaw boys near Doaksville, Oklahoma. Wallace and Mrs. Willis wrote “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the mid-1800s while working at the school.
The superintendent, Reverend Alexander Reid, heard them singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to students. Later, Reid was at a performance of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University and thought the songs the Willises sang were better than those of the Jubilee Singers. He gave Willis’ songs to the Fisk choir, who performed them while on tour in the United States and Europe.
The author: Dag Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Melanie Eversley, USA TODAY https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/printedition/life/20060815/d_sweetchariot.art.htm