As Passover approaches, what other song could I be listening to? Paul Robeson’s version is one of the most famous, which is particularly fitting, because his wife Eslanda Goode was a descendant of the Sephardic Cardozo family of Charleston.
If you belonged to a Reform synagogue in the 1970s, you’ll remember the “Freedom Seder” of those days. The first Freedom Seder was the effort of Arthur Waskow, a civil rights activist who later became a rabbi. In 1968, Passover began a week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the connection inspired Waskow to reimagine the Haggadah and the Seder. The first Freedom Seder was held on the anniversary of King’s death, reinforcing the bittersweet connection between Jewish Exodus and black emancipation. “Go Down Moses” has long been part of the liturgy of freedom, Jewish and black, and it has become a standard part of the liberal Seder.
The song itself dates back to the days of slavery, when Harriet Tubman used it as a message to guide escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad. But it came to new prominence during the Civil War. In 1861, it was recorded by the Reverend L. C. Lockwood, chaplain to the contrabands at Fort Monroe and published by Horace Waters, who specialized in publishing hymns, as sheet music in December of that year. It became popular among white audiences. When President Lincoln visited one of the contraband camps, he joined a prayer meeting to sing it with the congregation, with great emotion.
The title on the sheet music of 1861 wasn’t “Go Down Moses” or “Let My People Go.” It was “The Song of the Contrabands.” And the story of the contrabands is the story of the road to emancipation, as powerful as the story of the Exodus.
Shortly after the war broke out, three Virginia slaves escaped across the James River to Fort Monroe, held by the Union Army. Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend were all unwilling laborers for the Confederacy, building cannon nests across the river. When they met with the fort’s Commanding General, Benjamin F. Butler, they presented Butler with a dilemma. Technically, they were fugitive slaves. But they were fugitives with useful military intelligence.
When their master’s agent, a Confederate officer, appeared before Butler to ask for their return, Butler gave him an ingenious answer. The men were not fugitive slaves. Since just-seceded Virginia was a foreign country at war with the United States, these slaves were property seized in wartime—they were “contraband of war.”
Days later, nearly fifty more slaves arrived at Fort Monroe, among them women and children. And a week later, a Massachusetts soldier wrote home: “Slaves are brought here hourly.” Whatever their status, slave or free, the “contrabands” were soon put to work to cook meals, wash clothes, and dig latrines; by September, they were being paid for their work. Their numbers at Fort Monroe swelled to the point that the contrabands built a camp outside the fort. Wherever the Union Army fought, the contrabands followed. By 1865, the Union Army would manage a hundred contraband camps throughout the South.
The “Grand Contraband Camp” near Fort Monroe became the focal point for a social experiment that was a “rehearsal for Reconstruction.” The American Missionary Association, which would send teachers into the South as “soldiers of light and love,” hired their first black teacher, Mary S. Peake, to educate the contrabands in Virginia. Peake held her classes beneath a large oak tree. The tree still stands on the campus of Hampton Institute, one of the earliest black institutions of higher education in the South, the oak that grew from the acorn planted by Peake and the contrabands she taught.
“The Song of the Contrabands,” which began as a spiritual cry against slavery, had taken on another meaning by the time it touched the heart of the President. It became a political plea as well—not just for exodus but for emancipation. It would take another year of bloody fighting, but on January 1st, 1863, President Lincoln would proclaim the words that would make the former slaves—whether contrabands or not—“forever free.”
Adam Goodheart, “How Slavery Really Ended in America,” New York Times Magazine April 1, 2011. An account as compelling as fiction, which this post is deeply indebted to.
Aurora Mendelsohn, “From the Civil War to Our Seders, a Song of Redemption,” Forward April 1, 2011.
Deena Prichep, “In Freedom Seder, Jews And African-Americans Built A Tradition Together,” National Public Radio, aired April 4, 2015. Accompanied by a wonderful photograph.