Currie Ballard: Historian discovers he is descended from the slave couple that wrote Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Historians in the News

he old spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot could soon be recognized for its role in black American history.
A historian recently learned that he is descended from the slave couple believed to have written the song, and now he wants to publicize the story of his ancestors.

Currie Ballard says he was browsing through a bookstore around Christmas when he found Via Oklahoma: And Still the Music Flows by the late Mabel Alexander. Inside, he was startled to find a story identical to one his mother and grandmother had told him when he was a child.

Wallace and Minerva Willis, Ballard's ancestors, thought up the words and music of Sweet Chariot in the mid-1800s while working at a school for Native American boys in Oklahoma's Indian Territory. The song so moved the headmaster that he sent it to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nashville.

"I thought, 'I'll be doggoned,' " says Ballard, 47, historian-in-residence at historically black Langston (Okla.) University. "These stories are true."

Now Ballard and his cousin, Bernard Glenn-Moore, an aide to Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., are pushing for a resolution in Congress honoring the famed Fisk choral group, the Willises and their music. Davis plans to introduce the resolution when lawmakers return from their summer recess, Glenn-Moore says. The cousins also hope to organize a commemorative concert in Washington featuring the Fisk singers.

Another family, which shares Ballard's Oklahoma roots, also is exploring its ties to the Willises.

Minerva Willis was the grandmother of Ballard's grandmother's aunt and great-great-grandmother of Kim Burge, 49, a retired Oklahoma City police officer. He gives this account, based on his research:

The couple lived on a plantation in Holly Springs, Miss. When their owner, Brit Willis, a half-Choctaw man, left for the Trail of Tears — the route taken by Native Americans when the U.S. government ordered them to relocate to the West — he brought the Willises along.

Brit Willis rented the couple out to Spencer Academy for Choctaw boys near Doaksville, Okla., where the Willises entertained students by singing Sweet Chariot and other original Willis spirituals like Roll Jordan Roll and Steal Away to Jesus .

When the Fisk singers took Sweet Chariot on tour, Queen Victoria was visibly impressed, Burge says, which fueled the song's popularity....
Read entire article at Melanie Eversley in USA Today

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