19th Century US History

Black History the Role of Spirituals and Songs along the Underground Railroad



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"Negro creative genius working under the spur and backlash of American conditions, is unlike anything else in America or elsewhere, nor could it have been possible in any other place or in any other times."
James Weldon Johnson

Negro Spirituals were the foundation of the black worship experience during the height of slavery, and is credited as being one of the first truly American forms of artistic expression. The songs were born from the tragic existence of slaves, and embodied faith, hope, grief, and anguish. They seeped into every aspect of daily activity, from field work on plantations to nurturing the children of slave masters. Eventually, the Negro spiritual became much more.

EARLY INSPIRATIONS

Being inspired by stories of deliverance recorded in biblical scripture and the growing number of sympathetic whites advocating the abolishment of slavery, many enslaved blacks considered escape an alternative to the plight of their living conditions. As stories of successful escapes circulated among slaves, a new hope grew that encouraged those still in bondage.

But open communication about escape was absolutely forbidden to slaves, and even the suggestion of a successful escape could be punishable by severe beatings. On many plantations, conversations between slaves working in fields became a punishable offense. However, singing was allowed to encourage morale. Plantation owners found that slaves worked harder with seemingly less fatigue while singing. Soon, those very songs were carrying coded messages of information and events both on and off the plantation, and the songs most commonly sung to relay those messages were spirituals.

Before 1810, most slave escapes were completely spontaneous or very loosely organized. Consequently, a large number of "runners" were recaptured and brutally beaten or killed in plain view of other slaves to discourage similar actions. But some were able to find the security of freedom, even at the sacrifice of leaving behind family and loved ones.

Slave owners made every attempt to keep news about successful escapes from other slaves by using such tactics as misinformation and fear. They would filter false stories about the capture or death of an escaped slave, or severely beat others to discourage future escape attempts. But the "songs of freedom" flowed from plantation to plantation carrying messages.

UNDERGROUND INSPIRATION

Between 1810 and 1850, slave escapes became more organized, due to the clandestine support of abolitionists and the bravery of freemen and escaped slaves who risked their lives slipping back into slave territories to lead others to freedom. During this period, it is estimated that more than 100,000 slaves escaped to northern free states and Canada. It was also toward the beginning of this era that the first references were made about the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was neither subterranean nor an actual railroad. Instead, it was a series of safe houses called "stops" along several routes leading north. These stops provided rest, food, and clothing for the runaways. They traveled mostly at night, and were lead by "conductors", or slaves that were familiar with the route.

Two of the most well known conductors were Harriett Tubman and William Still. Tubman, nicknamed "Moses", is said to have made 19 trips to the south, leading around 300 slaves to freedom. Still, considered the father of the Underground Railroad, is said to have led as many as 60 slaves a month to freedom. Both used coded spirituals to alert slaves of escapes, and of potential routes and meeting places.

SPIRITUAL MESSAGES

Steal Away

"Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain't got long to stay here.

My Lord, He calls me,
He calls me by the thunder;
The trumpet sounds within my soul,
I ain't got long to stay here.

Green trees are bending,
Poor sinners stand a-trembling;
The trumpet sounds within my soul,
I ain't got long to stay here.

My Lord, He calls me,
He calls me by the lightning;
The trumpet sounds within my soul,
I ain't got long to stay here."

These lyrics were sung by Nat Turner, a slave from Virginia who, in 1831, planned a rebellion against slave owners. The song served as a means of alerting other slaves about meetings. It was also used throughout the southern plantations to inform slaves about planned escapes.

The Drinking Gourd

"When the Sun comes back
And the first quail calls
Follow the Drinking Gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd
The riverbank makes a very good road.
The dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
The river ends between two hills
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
There's another river on the other side
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
When the great big river meets the little river
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd."

This was thought to be a song giving directions. The first verse instructs slaves to leave in winter when quails migrated to the south. The drinking gourd refers to the big dipper. The second verse says to follow the river, and to look for signs.

Many other songs were sung for various purposes. Two of the best remembered are "Wade in the Water" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot". Many of these freedom spirituals are still sung in black churches to this day, and in many cases, they still provide hope and inspiration.

More about this author: Terry Marsh

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