Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “Which road is you gwine to take”

Composer:  Frank Dumont

Publisher:  White, Smith & Co.

Year & Place:  1880, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-201

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0201

Basic Description

This crudely drawn outdoor scene depicts two men approaching a crossroad on a country lane, whose dual signage “TO BRIMSTONE LAKE” and “TO PROMISED LAND” is matched with a shadowy background and a well-lit path, respectively.  The men are coarsely rendered with hardly any naturalism or anatomical correctness.

Personal Description

The dual signpost, with its morality-imbued dialectic of sinfulness or righteousness, is perhaps unintentionally countered by the double meaning here of “TO [the] PROMISED LAND,” which not only refers to a Judeo-Christian Heaven but, in the context of the 1870s and 1880s, to African American life in the post-Emancipation and post-Reconstruction era.

Reality Check


Edward Garrison Walker (ca. 1831-1901)

Edward Garrison Walker – leatherworker, lawyer, and politician – was born in Boston, Massachusetts around 1831.  His exact date of birth is unknown.  According to several sources his mother, Eliza, was a fugitive slave.  His father, David Walker, was infamous for authoring David Walker’s Appeal (1839): a controversial abolitionist text.

Walker was educated in Boston’s public schools and, as a youth, apprenticed with a local leatherworker.  He eventually owned his own shop and employed fifteen people.  With the heightened public awareness in New England concerning abolitionism, Walker (along with Boston abolitionists Lewis Hayden and Robert Morris) became well known in 1851 for helping to obtain the release of Shadrach, a fugitive slave.

While fighting for the release of Shadrach, Walker acquired a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which piqued his interest in law.  While still a leatherworker Walker read this and numerous other law texts and studied law in the offices of John Q. A. Griffin and Charles A. Tweed in Georgetown, Massachusetts.  After passing his law examination in May 1861, Walker became the third African American admitted to the Massachusetts bar.

Walker soon transitioned from law into politics.  In 1866, Walker (along with Charles L. Mitchell, another African American politician) was elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature.  While in office Walker opposed many Republican ideas and consequently the party refused to re-nominate him in 1867.  Undeterred, Walker became a Democrat, commandeering a number of black Bostonians to desert the GOP for the Democratic Party.

Walker continued to prosper as a lawyer.  Along with Robert Morris, Walker became well known for representing Irish clients seeking a redress of grievances from mostly British defendants.  Displaying inspirational photographs of Irish resistance leaders on his office walls, Walker considered the Irish fight for freedom as important as the recently concluded struggle to liberate African American slaves.

Walker forged alliances with many well known Boston politicians including Democratic Governor Benjamin F. Butler, who was elected to that office in 1883.  Butler, in turn, nominated Walker as a judge.  However, the Republicans in the legislature refused to ratify the nomination and, instead, gave the judgeship to a “loyal” Republican, the African American George L. Ruffin.  Walker was nominated again for three judgeships but was rejected each time by the Republican-dominated Massachusetts Legislature.

Partly in response to his difficulties as a rare black Democrat, Walker and other estranged black leaders initiated in the Negro Political Independence Movement in 1885.  Five years later, Walker was elected president of the Colored National League.  In 1896, Walker received the nomination for the U.S. Presidency by the Negro Party, a short-lived third party movement.  Edward Garrison Walker died on January 13, 1901 in Boston, Massachusetts.


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