I shouldn’t be surprised anymore about the twisted contradictions within the human mind and heart, but I often still am. Following the theme of the last two blogs, I decided to look up some background information about the song Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Here’s what I found in Wikipedia:
Uncle Wallace Willis (sometimes Wallis Willis) was a Choctaw freedman living in the Indian Territory in what is now Choctaw County in Oklahoma. 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.
Prior to 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 Fisk Jubilee Singers 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.”
So that’s interesting. But one thing confused me—what is a Choctaw Freedman? Back to Wiki:
The Choctaw freedmen were enslaved African Americans who were emancipated after the American Civil War and were granted citizenship in the Choctaw Nation. Their freedom and citizenship were requirements of the 1866 treaty the US made with the Choctaw; it required a new treaty because the Choctaw had sided with them during the war. The Confederacy had promised the Choctaw and other tribes of Indian Territory a Native American state if it won the war.
"Freedmen" is one of the terms given to the newly emancipated people after slavery was abolished in the United States. The Choctaw freedmen were officially adopted as full members into the Choctaw Nation in 1885.
Like other Native American tribes, the Choctaw had customarily held slaves as captives from warfare. As they adopted elements of European culture, such as larger farms and plantations, they began to adapt their system to that of purchasing and holding chattel slave workers of African-American descent.
Slavery lasted in the Choctaw Nation until 1866. Former slaves of the Choctaw Nation would be called the Choctaw freedmen, and then and later, a number had Choctaw as well as African and sometimes European ancestry.
So there it is again. Once human relationships are set in motion that are degraded and twisted and represent the worst of our human (or rather, inhumane) capacities, things get weird. Like women, Latinos and poor working folks voting for Trump, Indians “owning” slaves makes no sense whatsoever. But you can see how the clever white man got people to do things against their own self-interest, making promises they had no intention of keeping. “Hey, Choctaws, we treated you terribly and stole your land and sent you packing on the Trail of Tears, but if you fight for our side, we’ll give you your own Native American State! (wink, wink). And throw a few slaves into the bargain!” Same old, same old.
But equally interesting is that after turning against the folks that should have been their allies working together to oust a repressive regime, they then welcomed them into their “Choctaw Nation.” What was that like? Ex-slaves now living side-by-side with Native Americans? Screenwriters of America, there’s a story for you!
Meanwhile, think of Uncle Willis next time you sing “Swing Low.”