“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” designated state Gospel song; Fallin signs bill at Black Caucus dinner

Members of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus today (Tuesday, April 26) praised Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, for signing a bill at the group’s annual banquet this week – the first time a governor has signed a bill into law at the event.

Fallin, who attended the 19th Biennial A. C. Hamlin Awards Banquet last night (Monday, April 25), signed Senate Bill 73 into law before a large crowd of supporters of the Caucus. Fallin’s signature makes “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” the official Gospel song of the state of Oklahoma.

“The A. C. Hamlin Awards Banquet has always been an occasion to celebrate the diversity of Oklahoma and its rich heritage,” said state Rep. Jabar Shumate , a Tulsa Democrat who chairs the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus. “We greatly appreciate Governor Fallin’s support of that cause. Her actions at the banquet showed that Oklahoma is a place that embraces its history and its people.”

Senate Bill 73 was authored by Shumate and state Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre of Tulsa, also a Democrat.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was written in Indian Territory in 1862 by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw Freedman. The Red River reminded Wallis of the Jordan River, and the song was loosely based on the passage in the Bible that speaks of the Prophet Elijah being taken to heaven.

The Biennial Banquet is named in honor of A.C.  Hamlin, the first African American elected to the Oklahoma Legislature. Hamlin was elected in 1908 as a Republican. Members of the Hamlin family attended the banquet, as they have every time it has been held. 

“The Hamlin Awards Banquet is a great opportunity for people of all backgrounds to celebrate our state’s heritage while also focusing on creating a better future for all Oklahoma children,” Shumate said. “Last night’s banquet continued that proud tradition. I appreciate Speaker Kris Steele for helping push through Senate Bill 73 before the banquet, and thank Governor Fallin surprising us with the bill signing.”

Among other things, the Legislative Black Caucus works to emphasize equality for minorities, access to quality education for disadvantaged children, and increased access to college for black students in Oklahoma schools.

The bill had cleared the state House on Monday by a vote of 89-0.

Shumate observed the song is perhaps “the most famous Gospel song in the world. It should be a source of pride to all Oklahomans that this meaningful song was written in our state. Granting this song official recognition will help publicize the diversity of Oklahoma and the contributions of African-Americans to our state.”

Well known in the United States, the song is also part of the culture in Europe. It was adopted by the England Rugby Union fans during the last match of the 1988 season and recorded by the band UB40 for the team’s performance in the World Cup.

“By officially recognizing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ as the state gospel song, we can further solidify Oklahoma’s legacy as a place of national and international distinction,” Shumate said. “This legislation is just part of the ongoing effort to make our state an attractive place for historians, researchers and tourists who want to explore Oklahoma’s rich diversity and culture.”

Sen. Eason-McIntyre, honored at the Hamlin dinner for her long career of public service, shepherded the bill through the upper chamber in February.

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, she said, “What a treasure Wallis Willis has been for not only our state, but the world.  This beautiful song has comforted millions as a favorite at church and funeral services.  It’s also been used in films, on TV, and has been redone by many famous artists over the years. 

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a song that is deeply woven into the fabric of our culture.  It’s a song that we can all relate to; and I am so proud and humbled to be a part of ensuring that this beautiful spiritual not only stays in our hearts forever, but in our state’s history.”

Wallis Willis received his name from his owner, Britt Willis, probably in Mississippi, ancestral home of the Choctaws.  Britt Willis was a prominent citizen of the Choctaw Nation who moved to Indian Territory prior to the Civil War and had a large plantation near Doaksville in what is now Choctaw County.  Willis lived his life out in Choctaw and Atoka Counties.  It is believed that he died in Atoka County, as that is where his unmarked grave is located. 

Prior to the Civil War, Wallis Willis and his wife, Minerva, were sent by their owner to work at the Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding school located about ten miles northwest of Fort Towson just west of the current town of Spencerville, where the superintendent, Reverend Alexander Reid, heard them singing.

In 1871, Reid was at a performance of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and thought the Willis’ songs were better than those of the Jubilee Singers. He transcribed the songs and passed them along to the group which introduced them to the world, performing them around the United States and Europe.

In the last century, the spiritual has grown in popularity.  The tune has been recorded by such greats as Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Gene Autry, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley and Eric Clapton. 

Wallis Willis wrote other famous spirituals, including Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I’m a Rolling, and Roll Jordan Roll among others.

Assistant Secretary of the Oklahoma State Senate Currie Ballard is a descendent of Wallis and Minerva Willis.  Ballard’s ancestors were Choctaw Freedmen in Oklahoma.  His grandmother, aunt and mother all grew up in the state.  When the measure passed the upper chamber last month, Ballard said he was touched by the support from the Senate and others around the state to make the beautiful spiritual the state’s official gospel song.

“As a historian, I’ve found that so many Oklahomans and others around the world and country have sung this spiritual all their lives and never realized it came from Oklahoma so my heart rejoices that this will bring positive light to our state and wonderful citizens like Wallis,” said Ballard.

“Personally, my family is so touched and thrilled that Wallis’ song will forever be a permanent part of Oklahoma history.  Unfortunately, all of my older family has passed away and won’t get to witness this.  I do have a cousin that grew up with my mother in Muskogee that will be floating on a cloud, and I know there are angels that will celebrating in heaven when this becomes official.”

And now, it’s official. 
Note: Stu Ostler took the photo of the bill signing at the Hamlin dinner. Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.