Composers of spirituals, "Uncle Wallace" and "Aunt Minerva" Willis were slaves in the old Choctaw Nation area of Oklahoma during the mid-nineteenth century. A Choctaw named Britt Willis owned them. In addition to the usual chores done for the family, Willis hired the couple periodically to Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boys school, to help with the work there. They were great favorites of the students during these periods because of the songs they sang as they worked. Uncle Wallace composed "plantation songs" as he worked in the fields. Aunt Minerva would sing along with him when they were asked to perform the songs for the students in the evenings. The songs composed by Uncle Wallace became well-known "spirituals." "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Roll, Jordan, Roll," "Steal Away To Jesus," "I'm A'Rollin,' I'm A'Rollin," and "The Angels Are A'Comin'" are among the most popular and best loved.
In 1849 Rev. Alexander Reid came to the academy as the superintendent. During the next twelve years Reid and his family grew to love the couple and their music. When the Civil War began in 1961, John Kingsbury, son of Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, took Wallace, Minerva, and some of their children to Old Boggy Depot for protection. Later that year Rev. Reid's wife died after bearing his third child. In 1869 Reid and his children returned to Princeton, New Jersey, for the purpose of enrolling his children in eastern schools.
In 1871 the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University began a fund-raising tour for education work among the freedmen. They scheduled performances in several eastern cities, including New York City and surrounding suburbs. Rev. Reid, with his family and some friends, attended a performance in Newark. Professor G. White, the leader of the singing group, made an announcement to the large audience that due to a lack of material, subsequent performances would be a repeat of the material that had just been heard. At that point, Reid remembered the songs created by Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva. He communicated this information to Professor White, who was delighted to hear of the existence of more "plantation songs" and was willing to have them taught to the Jubilees. Reid had no musical education and therefore resorted to writing down the words and singing the songs over and over to the eleven members of the group until the music was firmly fixed in memory.
Reid gave six songs to the group, including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "I'm A'Rollin,' I'm A'Rollin," and "Steal Away To Jesus." The songs were sung throughout the country and in Europe and became standard performance material for the Jubilee Singers. It is said that during a performance in London, England's Queen Victoria requested an encore of "Steal Away To Jesus." The popularity of both the Jubilee Singers and the songs they sang continued to grow. In 1883 Reverend Reid requested that photographs be made of Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva Willis, which he sent to Fisk University in remembrance of their musical contributions.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Joseph Thoburn and Muriel Wright, Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1929). "Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva Willis," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
© Oklahoma Historical Society