Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: De Lord he make us Free; Freedmans Song
Composer: Pation, Eman. C.
Lyricist: Gates, Charles
Publisher: W. Jennings Demorest
Year & Place: 1865, New York, New York
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music B-1059
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b1059
The blue cover image is comprised by three frames: a fluted outer edge; a trellis covered in thick vegetation; and an oval of vines framing an inner portrait of four figures. These figures appear awkward, heavy, and immobile. The boy to the left rests his hands on a pole and stares into space. The boy in the center has drooping eyelids and looks almost looks drugged or dazed. He might be marching or running in place, but his movements seem slow and suspended. The woman standing in back stares at what appears to be nothing, holding a baby that blends amorphously into her figure. The vegetation around the trellis overwhelms the comparatively small portrait and includes a random pumpkin in the lower left, ferns, and weeds. Roses and grapes cover the top of the trellis, on either side of an American flag-styled shield.
This sheet music pamphlet was published in 1865, the year the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted and two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The play on words in the musician’s name, Eman C. Pation, makes this event seem like part of a joke or a child’s game, demonstrating that this song is not a product of serious celebration but rather of parody. The pamphlet also features another full-page illustration in addition to the blue cover page. This is a genre scene in an alley-like space between a row of shacks and a tall fence. There are at least a dozen people, many of them children, milling around or relaxing. In fact, the adults are all sitting, with the exception of a group of men in the background. In general, the figures imply stasis, timelessness, and passivity. The song lyrics reflect this passivity: “De Lord, He make us free indeed…We plant de rice and cotton seed. An’ see de sprout some day; We know it come, but not de why- De Lord know more than we.” The message is that African Americans did nothing but “plant de cotton seeds” and wait passively for God and the North to free them. Like the lyrics, the suffocating presence of Nature on the cover page ties the figures in the portrait to their “rightful” agricultural work. But it also suggests that African Americans themselves had nothing to do with achieving Emancipation; it was a “coming,” the result of a natural process, and driven by the divine Creator.
Amanda Smith was born into slavery in Long Green, Maryland. Her liberator was her father, Samuel Berry: after having purchased himself, he purchased this wife, Mariam, and their five children. Eventually, the Berry family expanded to include eight more children, and moved to a farm in York County, Pennsylvania, where their home became an Underground Railroad station.
In 1854, at the age of seventeen, Amanda Berry married Calvin Devine. The couple lived in New York City, where Amanda worked as a domestic servant, and had two children, one of whom died in infancy. Life with Calvin, a drunkard, was fraught with misery, but Amanda was not crushed. This was largely due to the spiritual conversion she experienced during the Great Awakening in 1856.
Not long after the outbreak of the Civil War, Calvin Devine joined the Union Army, and was killed in battle in 1863. Amanda’s next husband was a coachman named James Smith. Philadelphia became Amanda’s new home, and she continued to earn a living at the only trade she knew: domestic service. The African Methodist Episcopal Church became the denomination she embraced, and she worshiped at Mother Bethel, the denomination’s cornerstone church where her husband was a deacon.
Amanda knew more sorrow during her second marriage. The three children she had with James died very young. Moreover, James Smith proved to be a disappointment as a husband and as a Christian. Ironically, it was during her husband’s falling away from the church that Amanda was called to preach. After James’ death, Amanda Smith’s decision to obey the call in 1869 initially met with much resistance from the A.M.E. clergy.
When she began, Amanda Smith preached primarily in New York City and New Jersey, steadily amassing a strong following. By 1870, evangelism was her only “job.” By the end of the decade, she was known as far north as Maine and as far south as Tennessee. By 1890, Smith had brought souls to Christ and strengthened fellow believers in England, India, Liberia and Sierra Leone, emerging as one of the A.M.E. Church’s most effective missionaries, and widening the way for more black women to answer the call to preach.
In 1912, when she was in her mid-seventies, Amanda Berry Smith moved to Florida. She did so at the urging of a wealthy white businessman, George Sebring, who had long admired her work. This man provided Smith with a lovely home and saw to it that she had no want or worries for the remainder of her days.
(Source: African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Cambridge University Press, 2000.)