Following the Drinking Gourd

Coded Spirituals in American Slavery

"I don't take [them] off the plantation. This way they don't know which way is east, which way it is to the west. Once they have figured where someplace else is--next thing you know, they'll know which way is the north.“

-From Alex Haley’s “Roots”

Read on and follow the links (red buttons) below to learn more about how slaves in the American South used vocal music to openly communicate secret plans for escape.

Christian Spirituals have long been part of the rich traditions in African American history, dating back to when slavery was widespread in the Americas. While on the surface, these songs appear to provide a steady rhythmic backdrop for physical labor, as well as seeming proof of the slaves' assimilation of Protestant Christian ideals, a closer study reveals their use as tools of resistance. These coded spirituals can be grouped into 3 broad categories:

Advisory - providing general information or advice on how to successfully escape

Signal - providing current intelligence about an upcoming escape

Map - providing specific geographical information

Analyze the lyrics of the songs below, and see if you can find clues to secret or double meanings in the words.


Click on the words in quotation marks in the paragraph below to watch a video that interprets the coded messages in those songs.

Abolitionist Literature

Click on the red button below to read an excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel written to persuade American readers toward abolishing slavery.


Continue reading and interacting with the links below for a more in-depth study of the subject
The Evolution of a Unique Cultural Form

This rendition of "Steal Away" is rich with African-American cultural references, and was performed live at the oldest AME church in the Americas, Emanuel AME, Charleston, South Carolina.

Use Google Earth to locate AME churches which follow this architectural style!

This exercise requires Google Earth. To download the latest version, click on the link below.

The pitfalls of using the internet as a research tool.

The following exercise gives insight into how misinformation can go "viral", suggests solutions, and provides resources for historical analysis. Because some of the content incorporates primary source accounts, the language may be unsuitable for some students.
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