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From the Civil War to Our Seders, a Song of Redemption

At every Seder I can remember, our family has sung “Go Down Moses” (“Go down, Moses/Way down in Egypt’s land/Tell ol’ Pharaoh/Let my people go”). As a child I loved it because it was a song in English, and I did not yet know Hebrew. (Most of the fun tunes were in Hebrew.)

As an older child I appreciated how it made vivid both the anger of slavery as described in Exodus (“Thus said the Lord/bold Moses said/Let my people go/If not, I’ll smite your first-born dead, and No more shall they in bondage toil/…/Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil”) and the dawning hope of rebellion (“We need not always weep and mourn/…And wear these slavery chains forlorn”). Later, of course, the song took on new meaning when I learned it was written by African Americans during slavery.

African Americans have long made the religious connection between slavery in America and the Exodus story, as evidenced by many such songs and sermons. “Go Down Moses” made it into a Passover Haggadah as early as 1941, with The New Haggadah by Mordecai Kaplan, Eugene Kohn and Ira Eisenstein. There was some controversy because the song was seen as a Christian hymn, even though the Haggadah omitted the last verse — “Oh, let us all from bondage flee… in Christ be free.” In 1969 Arthur Waskow designed the “Freedom Seder,” an event and a Haggadah to make explicit the connection in reverse, ritually connecting our Passover story to American slavery, the struggle for civil rights and our present-day obligations to end oppression. My parents had copies of both of these Haggadot, and the song made its way into our Seders.

By appearing in so many contemporary Haggadot, “Go Down Moses” is now a de facto part of the modern Passover liturgy. These Haggadot often describe the song as “a spiritual,” but this fails to impart its moving and important history. “Go Down Moses” was first known by another name, “Song of the Contrabands.”

In Waskow and Phyllis Berman’s new book on the Passover story, “Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia,” the African-American historian Vincent Harding poignantly describes this mutual influence as Jews’ and African Americans’ “joint ownership” of the Exodus story. He writes that he is unable to approach the story without mentally hearing “Go Down Moses.”

The story of the song begins in the early days of the Civil War. In 1861, three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory, were sent to the Confederate Army to help with construction. They escaped at night and rowed across the harbor from Norfolk, Va., to Union-held Fort Monroe. They presented themselves to Union General Benjamin Butler, risking being returned to their enslavers and facing horrible punishment, as dictated by the law in effect before the war. Butler refused to return them, classifying them as “contraband of war.” Laws were soon passed prohibiting returning them to their enslavers.

The Contrabands at Fort Monroe built housing from burned ruins. Their community came to be known as Grand Contraband Camp. Defying a Virginia law against educating slaves, the African-American humanitarian Mary Peake taught both adults and children to read and write. Inspired by this opportunity for freedom (albeit partial and haphazard) many escaped and made their way to Fort Monroe. By the end of the war, less than four years later, there were many Contraband camps and thousands of Contrabands.

A song that some of the Contrabands sang when they arrived at Fort Monroe was recorded and published by a chaplain, the Rev. L.C. Lockwood, as “The Song of the Contrabands: O Let My People Go.” It was the first spiritual to gain national (i.e., white) popularity. President Lincoln visited Contraband camps frequently and on one documented occasion joined a prayer meeting and sang along, often overcome with emotion, to “Go Down Moses” and other songs.

In a later celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation at a Contraband camp in Washington, D.C., a woman improvised the immediately popular verse “Go down Abraham/Way down in Dixie’s land/Tell Jeff Davis to/Let my people go.” This year at my Seder when I sing this song, almost exactly 150 years after the start of the Civil War, I’ll be thinking of her.

Aurora Mendelsohn is a biostatistician who lives in Toronto.

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