Wading Into Freedom: An Underground Negro Spiritual

Wade in the Water,

Wade in the water, children,

Wade in the Water,

 God’s a-going to trouble the water

  • Wade in the Water/ (Negro Spiritual)

Choirs in Black Churches across the nation lift their voices in harmony to respect, remember and honor the toils of their African ancestors. These churches sing the songs of mourning and hardship; family and hope; religion and freedom. Their voices echo the souls of those who were lost to slavery and those who survived. Wade in the Water is a historic song that originated in the time of slavery and is still sung in Black Churches; today, it is revered as a Negro spiritual. But for African American slaves, this slave song held additional symbolism: it was a key to freedom.

During the time of slavery in the United States, African American slaves would often leave hidden messages within works of their own creations to be interpreted by other slaves. Wade in the Water was originally a coded slave song that was sung as a warning to runaway slaves when their absence was discovered. “Singing the song would spread the word to other plantations in hopes that the runaway would hear it, know the bloodhounds were after his[her] scent, and travel by water to hide any scent and tracks” (Pershey 2). It has been found that Harriet Tubman would use coded slave songs to help guide those on the journey to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Steal Away, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Follow the Drinking Gourd, are a few examples of other slave songs I found, containing hidden meanings. Steal Away was sung by a slave who was planning on escaping, Sing Low, Sweet Chariot meant a slave was going to be taken through the Underground Railroad and in Follow the Drinking Gourd there is advice for slaves to escape during the spring and to use the Big Dipper as a guide to the north (“Songs of the Underground”).

The spiritual itself did not belong to one person, but rather belonged to African slaves as a whole and as a community. It is reported that this slave song, and many others, were created as a form of resistance by African slaves who believed in their due freedom and were willing to risk their lives to take it (Professor Pittman, African American studies, November 3, 2015). As a spiritual it represents a part of the religion/spirituality that Africans adopted into their culture as African Americans. Wade in the Water, and other slave songs, were oral traditions that were passed down and now have become a deep, rooted piece of African American history as Negro spirituals.

I find that the term “Negro spiritual” is typically defined as Black Christian music that originated during the time of slavery. In the fields it was reported that slaves were sometimes allowed to sing songs that helped them keep a rhythmed pattern with their work (“History Official Site of Negro Spirituals”). “They sang to lighten their burdens, remind one another of hope, restore their spirits, increase their courage, and enjoy the little free time they had” (Pershey 2).  As mentioned before, songs were also a way that Black slaves exhibited cultural resistance. Despite being taken from their homes and stripped of their names and identities, African slaves still held on to the familial kinship and spirituality of their traditions as well as absorbing and transforming European culture to create a unique culture of their own (“Songs of the Underground”).

The establishment of the first Black Church in Philadelphia (1794) by Richard Allen and the steps taken by President F.D. Roosevelt in 1941 to enforce the 13th amendment, began to mark a time in which coded slaves songs were no longer needed (Professor Pittman, African American studies, November 3, 2015 ) (“Slavery by Another Name” ). As time and the African American Civil Rights movement progressed, the symbolism of slave songs as having hidden messages of a path that could be taken by a runaway slave to freedom or a warning to “wade in the water,” so bloodhounds couldn’t find them, have since evolved. African slave songs that were stealthily passed among slaves with hidden messages are now spiritual memorials sung loudly and freely by their descendants. These songs today are a significant part of African American history to be remembered and commemorated. The majority of African Americans cannot trace their family tree back to the African slave they are descendent of; myself included. And so, we remember. We remember through the traditions passed down to us. We remember through history, soul food, family reunions, jumping the broom, kinship, dance, stories, religion and song.

As an African American Christian, I am a part of one of many churches that continue to sing the songs of Black slaves. My religion and my ethnicity are what link me personally to this topic. Some of my favorite church songs are the older songs that were sung in some of the first Black churches. I have mentioned before several times how the remembrance of these songs are important. But why are they important?  It is important because the trials and tribulations of our African ancestors, although different, are not over. African Americans still face the social barriers and prejudices that continue to exist even after the end of slavery. We are consistently discriminated against, and like those who came before us, we must persist. The wade into freedom for slaves was a long and arduous one. Since then, African Americans have entered a new fight. With the remembrances of our ancestors ringing in our voices and with determination, we wade into equality.


Reference Page

“History Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music.” History Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music. Spiritual Workshop. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Pershey, Monica. “African American Spiritual Music: A Historical Perspective.” The Dragon Lode 18.2 (2000): 2. Print.

Pittman, L. (2015, November 3). Slavery and Slave Resistance. Lecture.

Slavery by Another Name. Dir. Sam Pollard. Perf. Turron Kofi Alleyne, Alex Carney, Melvin Cox, Ananias J. Dixon, Shane Guilbeau, Roxanne Roberts Hankins, Jaquay Arnold, Tim Kirkpatrick, Derek J. Lovett, Carl McGhee, Sayyed Shabazz, William Jason Sumners, Randy Watson, Gabe Cain, Vincent Cheatham, Timoth. 2012. Film.

“Slave Spiritual Story- Wade in the Water.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXqMQfpNSes&gt;.

“Songs of the Underground Railroad.” Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman Historical Society, 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Wade in the Water. Digital image. Civil War Inheritage Trails. N.p., 2002. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://www.civilwarheritagetrails.org/civil-war-music/images/wade-in-the-water/wade-in-the-water.jpg&gt;.

“WADE IN THE WATER Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music.” WADE IN THE WATER Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music. Spiritual Workshop. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <http://www.negrospirituals.com/songs/wade_in_the_water.htm&gt;.

2 thoughts on “Wading Into Freedom: An Underground Negro Spiritual

  1. I found your blog post very interesting, because I did my post on the Underground Railroad as well, but I had no idea how popularized spiritual songs were in using them as coded messages. Your title and few lines from “Wade in the Water” capture your argument well and I would love to hear more about your experience in am African American church and how those spiritual songs from the past play into your religion! The fact that you brought in other songs we discussed like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and also brought in “Slavery By Other Name,” shows how well you can connect this topic to what we have discussed in class and still expand on this information. Great job!


  2. Your blog post was very interesting, as I was enticed to learn more about codes that were hidden in African American spirituals. The title and image were perfect and drew me straight to the post. Your connection to course material as well as to yourself made the blog very informational. Now I am interested in learning about codes that were in other slave songs. I was also interested in reading about how those songs still play into your religious experiences of today. The explanations you provide are excellent, keep up the great work.


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