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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Composers of spirituals, “Uncle Wallace” and “Aunt Minerva” Willis were enslaved 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 them 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 while they worked. Wallace composed “plantation songs” as he worked in the fields. Minerva would sing along with him when they were asked to perform the songs for the students in the evenings. The songs composed by Wallace Willis 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 Wallace, Minerva, and their music. When the Civil War began in 1861, John Kingsbury, son of Rev. Cyrus Kingsbury, took most of the Willis family 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 Wallace and 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 Wallace and Minerva Willis, which he sent to Fisk University in remembrance of their musical contributions.

For almost one hundred years scholars assumed that Wallace Willis and Minerva Willis were husband and wife. Research conducted in 2019‒21 by R. B. Ward, a historian, attorney, genealogist, and descendant of the Willis family, uncovered documentary evidence revealing that Wallace and Minerva Willis were father and daughter, not husband and wife. This fact was made clear in Wallace Willis’s obituary, written by Rev. Alexander Reid and published in the December 1884 issue of The Fisk Herald, and it is corroborated in legal documents. Ward’s summation of the evidence appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of The Chronicles of Oklahoma.

Judith Michener


Dawes Enrollment Cards for the Five Civilized Tribes, 1898‒1914, microfilm and online, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

John B. Moore Probate File (Marshall County, Mississippi), Mississippi Probate Records.

Rev. Alex. Reid, “Sketch of the Life of Uncle Wallace,” The Fisk Herald 2 (December 1884), 2‒3, Microfilm, Special Collections, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.

Joseph B. Thoburn and Muriel H. Wright, Oklahoma: A History of the State and Its People (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1929).

“Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva Willis,” Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.

R. B. Ward, “The Misremembered ‘Uncle’ Wallace and ‘Aunt’ Minerva: Establishing Father-Daughter Kinship,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 100 (Spring 2022).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Judith Michener, “Willis, “Uncle” Wallace and “Aunt” Minerva,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=WI018.

Published January 15, 2010
Last updated September 22, 2023

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