Beyond the Wail
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"Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus"

was the code-song of slaves, who stole away under cover of night
to Hush Arbors or Brush Harbors.

The religious gatherings of enslaved Africans (and some native American "Indians" who were also enslaved) involved both formal worship organized and overseen by slave masters, as well as secret, clandestine meetings held under the cover of darkness. Those enslaved risked being beaten or even killed if caught attending these secret worship assemblies.

Great care was taken to avoid detection. Meetings were held in secluded places (woods, ravines, areas with lots of brush to provide cover). These places were known as ‘hush harbors’. Some meetings would consist of the enslaved gathering behind quilts, or other rags which were dampened to help muffle voices. The rags and quilts where hung up to resemble an enclosure, a tabernacle of sorts. In other settings, those enslaved would form a circle on their knees. The preacher would also sit in the middle of the circle , bending over to talk into a bowl or tub of water.

It was in the hush harbor, buried deep within the untended woods on the plantation that slaves remembered the forests of their homeland. There they could escaped the confining, supervised worship of segregated chapels and were able to practise ancestral rituals which would help them to feel that the spirits of their ancestors followed them - even into slavery.

This “invisible institution” served as an opportunity for worship and solidarity when they could enjoy short remissions from the pain and anguish of slavery. The meetings might also include dancing in the African fashion. Here 'Negro spirituals' may have originated. The songs created by slaves often had double meanings, combining hopes of religious salvation and freedom from slave misery.



with thanks to


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