American Slavery, 1852

From Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” a speech given at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852:

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul. The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shock ing gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and on flaming “hand-bills,” headed cash for Negroes. These men were generally well dressed men, and very captivating in their manners; ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.

The flesh-mongers gather up their victims by dozens, and drive them, chained, to the general depot at Baltimore. When a sufficient number has been collected here, a ship is chartered for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. From the slave prison to the ship, they are usually driven in the darkness of night; for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed.

In the deep, still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead, heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door. The anguish of my boyish heart was intense; and I was often consoled, when speaking to my mistress in the morning, to hear her say that the custom was very wicked; that she hated to hear the rattle of the chains and the heart-rending cries. I was glad to find one who sympathized with me in my horror.


Fare you well

Fare you well

Fare well, everybody

Fare you well

Fare you well

If ever I do get home

— Sung by slaves taking leave of each other when one or more have been sold away


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Myths About Slavery

You’ve probably run into people, most likely white people, who think that slavery wasn’t that big a deal, and even if it was, it’s over. Besides, their family never owned slaves so the whole issue doesn’t really involve them. Maybe, at some time in the past, you’ve even thought some of those things yourself.

Writes Margaret Biser in her remarkable essay: “Up until a few weeks ago, I worked at a historic site in the South that included an old house and a nearby plantation. My job was to lead tours and tell guests about the people who made plantations possible: the slaves.”

She summarizes and responds to the questions and reactions she encountered most often. For instance:

“People think slaveholders ‘took care’ of their slaves out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than out of economic interest.”


“People don’t understand how prejudice influenced slaveholders’ actions beyond mere economic interest.”


Read the whole thing here.

We flinch away from the realities, maybe because we don’t want to think about our ancestors who owned slaves, or our ancestors who were slaves, or the myriad unfreedoms in our own lives today.

Singing songs the slaves sang gives us a way to enter into a world that is so hard for us to imagine. We are moved, and so are our audiences.

Last summer the Spirituals Choir sang at the Royall House & Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts. It was a powerful experience indeed, to sing where slaves might once have sung some of the same songs we were singing. (For an account of our trip, click here.)

If you’re on Martha’s Vineyard this month, here’s our July schedule:

Wednesday, July 8, 6:30 p.m. West Tisbury library. Free.

Saturday, July 18, 7 p.m., Union Chapel. $15 at the door; under 12 get in free.

Sunday, July 19, 11 a.m., Unitarian Universalist Society, Vineyard Haven.

Sunday, July 26, 6:30 p.m., East Chop Lighthouse. Part of the Vineyard’s celebration of Della Hardman Day.

Thursday, July 30, 6:30 p.m., Oak Bluffs library. Free.

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Singing After Charleston

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

When plans were made for the Spirituals Choir to sing at the Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 21 — today — no one knew that we would be singing four days after a white supremacist gunman opened fire at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans in cold, cold blood.

Where to start, where to start?

If the gunman is “mentally ill,” his mental illness is shared, to some degree, by millions of Americans. They believe that African Americans are somehow less than other Americans — white Americans. That Africans were enslaved because they were not fit to be free.

The songs we sing say otherwise. As we sang today, I thought of something that Jim Thomas, founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project and director of the choir, likes to point out: that none of the slave songs speak of hatred or vengeance. Resistance and escape, yes, but not vengeance.

After crossing Vineyard Sound on the 7 a.m. ferry from Vineyard Haven, we boarded our chartered bus in Woods Hole.

We arrive in Canton.

We arrive in Canton.

By 9:15 we were in Canton.

We were welcomed by Martha Mezger, long a member of the choir, now a member of the Canton UU congregation.

The service focused on the slave songs, and the experience of those who sang them. The opening hymn was “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” which is in this year’s repertoire.

Singing these songs, it’s impossible not to think about what the original singers were thinking when they sang them.

The Rev. Beverly “Buffy” Boke read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Please, click the link above and read the whole thing.

Getting ready to sing. Jim's at the lower right.

Getting ready to sing. Jim’s at the lower right.

We sang.

“Wasn’t That a Wide River” — about the crossing of the Atlantic.

“We Shall Walk Through the Valley” — possibly the first peace song sung on this continent.

“I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” — about being so far behind on the long cotton rows that one couldn’t hear one’s fellows, or maybe about despair in general.

“As I Went Down in the Valley to Pray” — the slaves practiced their own religion, often with imagery from the Christian Bible, but they went out of the white folk’s sight to do it.

“Fare You Well” — in which slaves sold away from the plantation take leave of their fellows.

choir 2“Done Made My Vow to the Lord” — the vow of slaves preparing to leave on the Underground Railroad, that they will never turn back or betray their fellows.

“Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Coming” — in which the slaves prepare for emancipation.

“There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land” — the Promised Land in the slave songs is freedom.

“Great Day” — one of the last spirituals, about emancipation.

After the service we joined the congregation for a truly impressive potluck lunch in the parish hall. We had to leave all too early to catch our ferry home.

Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir will give a free presentation at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, June 24, at 5 p.m. Or come to our full-length performance next Saturday, June 27, at 7 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $15 at the door and benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project. Children under 12 get in free.

A window at the church

A window at the church



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Upcoming Library Performances

The Spirituals Choir is bringing its unique blend of history and song to three island libraries this summer.

Our first library appearance is at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, June 24, at 5 pm.

On Wednesday, July 8, we’ll be at the West Tisbury library, starting at 6:30 pm.

And at the end of July — July 30 at 6:30 pm — we’ll be making our first-ever appearance at the Oak Bluffs library as part of its OB Live Music Series.

These presentations are all free and open to people of all ages. Questions and comments are more than welcome. We hope to see you at one or more of these events.

A view of the audience at the choir's 2014 appearance in the West Tisbury library's wonderful new program room. That's director Jim Thomas in blue on the left and accompanist (and bass) Phil Dietterich on keyboards at the right.

A view of the audience at the choir’s 2014 appearance in the West Tisbury library’s wonderful new program room.

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Jim’s Back!

Spirituals Choir leader Jim Thomas, that is — and that means that rehearsals for the choir’s 2015 season will be starting soon.

Wednesday, April 15,

from 6 to 7 p.m.

in the rec room at Windemere.

New members are welcome, and now is the best time to join up. Email Jim to let him know of your interest, or drop me a line by commenting on this blog post and I’ll pass the word along.

If your organization is interested in hosting a performance, let us know. Dates will be posted as they are confirmed.

spirituals choir

The choir’s sopranos and altos, West Tisbury library, June 2014.

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More About Our Trip

Dr. Lorna Andrade emailed this to the Spirituals Choir after our return from our trip and has kindly agreed to share it with readers of this blog. Lorna co-founded the choir with Jim Thomas as part of the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP and has been involved with it ever since. She’s also a past vice president of the MV NAACP.

 Sunday’s trip to the Royall House and Slave Quarters on the air-conditioned bus, with a nice driver as well, was magnificent.

The luncheon hosted by our choir director, Jim, was delightful and heartfelt.

Organist Phil Dietterich and soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross

Organist Phil Dietterich and soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross

Reverend Phil [Dietterich]’s organ presentation was just magnificent  — he’s a true MASTER!

And our guest soloist, Elizabeth [Lyra Ross], was truly soulful as well.

The Spirits of my Ancestors were crying out to me, and I came home and wept with great spiritual conviction.

For the women to have gone through such deep mental anguish and breeding and childbirth on the floor with straw bedding, and the grueling working hours and conditions: this became very visual for me — once again, since I had previously visited these quarters in my younger years at college.

I am not leaving out the torture of our men slaves as well, but I have a more spiritual connection to the women. For those of you who have given birth, you must imagine the pain and suffering endured by each woman, and the mere fact that they had to get back up to work in the hot kitchens, and taking care of crops, and the Big House, etc.

As we sing each spiritual song, remembering each code, the language of each slave, we become more compassionate and understanding of each struggle!

Peace and Blessings,



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Big Day in Boston and Medford

Yesterday the Spirituals Choir traveled to the big city to sing — and what a great day it was!

boarding busHaving made it to Vineyard Haven in time for the 7 a.m. boat, we boarded our chartered bus in Woods Hole.

Our first stop was at Boston’s Old North Church, where we were scheduled to sing at the 11 a.m. service. Old Boston’s streets are not bus-friendly, so the bus let us off on Commercial Street. We hiked up and then down Hull Street to the church.

Appropriately enough, “Climbing Up the Mountain” is in our regular repertoire this year. When we got to the historic church, the steps up to the balcony were far steeper and narrower than Hull Street. We all made it to the top.

As with many a mountain, the view from the top was pretty cool.

The pews of Old North Church

The pews of Old North Church, between the end of the 9 a.m. service and the beginning of the 11 a.m.

We had just enough time for our accompanist, Phil Dietterich, to get used to the organ and for us and our guest soloist, Elizabeth Lyra Ross, to have a brief sound check.

Phil Dietterich and Elizabeth Lyra Ross at sound check

Phil Dietterich and Elizabeth Lyra Ross at sound check

To make sure that we were singing to the congregation below and not the wall behind the organ, Jim directed us from the side. The layout of the narrow balcony made this challenging: if anyone leaned forward too far, no one sitting to his or her left could see Jim. We managed!

Jim warms us up

Jim warms us up

Phil played the prelude, based on “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” then we sang the choral prelude: “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” and “Wasn’t That a Wide River?” The regular service included both a baptism and Holy Communion. Ms. Ross sang the offertory anthem, a very moving “Steal Away to Jesus.” The communion anthem featured us singing “This Little Light of Mine.”

Shortly afterward, we sang the choral postlude — “Done Made My Vow,” “Soon I Will Be Done,” and “In Bright Mansions Above” — after which the service was brought to a close by Phil with his own “Improvisations on ‘Ride On, King Jesus.’”

Then it was up and down Hull Street again to meet our bus. Next stop: the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford. After checking in with Gracelaw Simmons, our contact person, we strolled around the corner and down Main Street for lunch at the Sei Bar, a pan-Asian restaurant. (Highly recommended, by the way: When you visit the Royall House, check it out.)

Leading the horde back from lunch: from left, Jim Thomas, Warren Doty, Nan Doty, and Phil Dietterich. On the left is the brick wall that partially surrounds the Royall House and Slave Quarters.

Leading the horde back from lunch: from left, Jim Thomas, Warren Doty, Nan Doty, and Phil Dietterich. On the left is the brick wall that partially surrounds the Royall House and Slave Quarters.

Before our 4 p.m. performance, we had time for a tour of the Royall House, ably guided by the museum’s part-time executive director, Tom Lincoln. While we experienced the physical house — the small rooms, low ceilings, and furnishings — Tom provided the context that linked the mansion’s inhabitants to the slaves who made their luxurious life possible. (The Royall family often consisted of only two adults and two growing children. When Isaac Royall Sr. and his wife, Elizabeth, took up residence in the 1730s, they brought with them at least 27 slaves from their sugar plantation in Antigua.)

Museum executive director Tom Lincoln makes a point to his attentive listeners. That's the Slave Quarters behind him.

Museum executive director Tom Lincoln makes a point to his attentive listeners. That’s the Slave Quarters behind him.

The estate, comprising some 500 acres, was like a small, mostly self-sufficient town. Nearly all the work done to sustain it — cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and linens, gardening, orchard tending, horsekeeping, driving, carpentry, blacksmithery, and so on and on — was done by slaves. Feeding the family and their frequent dinner guests took up most of every 24 hours, which is why there are pallets in the winter kitchen for the “staff” to sleep on between the end of one workday and the beginning of the next a scant few hours later.

Virtually every room has its own fireplace. Think, said Tom, how much work went into keeping those fires burning. No kidding: felling the trees, sawing them into logs, splitting the logs, carrying the wood, starting the fire, feeding it, banking it . . .

royall PRUpstairs, close to what might have been the master bedroom, is the dressing room. Clothing was far more elaborate in the 18th century, and manners more formal. The elite, and those who aspired to lofty status, didn’t venture downstairs except in proper attire — and “proper attire” could seldom be achieved without help. Here the master and mistress of the mansion would have been dressed by their slaves, in a relationship of considerable intimacy.

What the house slaves must have known about the family they served! But, as Tom pointed out, very little of what the slaves did or thought has come down to us. Often we know no more than their first names, and sometimes not even that.

We don’t know what songs the Royalls’ slaves sang either. Since many of them came originally from the Caribbean, they might not have had much contact with slaves in the southern colonies of what became the United States.

Still, as we sang — on a porch outside the main house, facing the Slave Quarters — we couldn’t help but imagine the enslaved residents of this place singing songs like “Soon I Will Be Done” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” Surely some of the them would have accompanied the family to worship services in churches that looked much like Old North Church, and come home impressed with the Bible stories that grew into spirituals like “Climbing Up the Mountain” and “Where Will I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”

We could have hung out for hours afterward talking with members of the audience, not only about the U.S. Slave Song Project but about the work that’s being done in the Medford schools and wider community about local and national African American history. But our bus was waiting, and at the other end of the road our ferry home.

audience 2

Some of our audience

audience 1

More of our audience

The 7:30 ferry was loading as our bus pulled into Woods Hole. The catch? The 7:30 goes into Oak Bluffs, and all of our cars were in Vineyard Haven. Lucky for us, the freight boat Governor was also loading, destination Vineyard Haven. Several of us sang most of the way across Vineyard Sound, probably driving some of our fellow passengers crazy. We sounded pretty good, if I do say so myself.

The front of the Royall House

The front of the Royall House


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