They are coming!

Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C., circa 1900
This is one of many photographs of African Americans that was assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition by W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway. This picture is in the on-line archives of the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-35752; click here for more details.

by Josephine Heard (1861-1921)

They are coming, coming slowly –
They are coming, surely, surely –
In each avenue you hear the steady tread.
From the depths of foul oppression,
Comes a swarthy-hued procession,
And victory perches on their banners’ head.

They are coming, coming slowly –
They are coming; yes, the lowly,
No longer writhing in their servile bands.
From the rice fields and plantation
Comes a factor of the nation,
And threatening, like Banquo’s ghost, it stands.

They are coming, coming proudly
They are crying, crying loudly:
O, for justice from the rulers of the land!
And that justice will be given,
For the mighty God of heaven
Holds the balances of power in his hand.

Prayers have risen, risen, risen,
From the cotton fields and prison;
Though the overseer stood with lash in hand,
Groaned the overburdened heart;
Not a tear-drop dared to start –
But the Slaves’ petition reach’d the glory-land.

They are coming, they are coming,
From away in tangled swamp,
Where the slimy reptile hid its poisonous head;
Through the long night and the day,
They have heard the bloodhounds’ bay,
While the morass furnished them an humble bed.

They are coming, rising, rising,
And their progress is surprising,
By their brawny muscles earning daily bread;
Though their wages be a pittance,
Still each week a small remittance,
Builds a shelter for the weary toiling head.

They are coming, they are coming –
Listen! You will hear the humming
Of the thousands that are falling into line:
There are Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers;
There are Sculptors, Poets, Teachers –
Men and women, who with honor yet shall shine.

They are coming, coming boldly,
Though the Nation greets them coldly;
They are coming from the hillside and the plain.
With their scars they tell the story
Of the canebrakes wet and gory,
Where their brothers’ bones lie bleaching with the slain.

They are coming, coming singing,
Their Thanksgiving hymn is ringing.
For the clouds are slowly breaking now away,
And there comes a brighter dawning –
It is liberty’s fair morning,
They are coming surely, coming, clear the way.

Yes, they come, their stopping’s steady,
And their power is felt already –
God has heard the lowly cry of the oppressed:
And beneath his mighty frown,
Every wrong shall crumble down,
When the right shall triumph and the world be blest!


This poem is from the book Morning Glories by Josephine Delphine Henderson Heard. The book was published in 1890.

“Josie” Heard was born in 1861 in North Carolina. Her parents were born enslaved, but it’s not clear if they became free before or after the Civil War. She went to school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and received additional education at Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina, and the Bethany Institute in New York. Heard maried an AME (African Methodist Episcopalian) minister, and during a stay with her husband in Philadelphia, she published her book of poems entited Morning Glories.

Josephine Heard
Josephine Heard; image is from her book Morning Glories

In their book Women’s Work: An Anthology of African-American Women’s Historical Writings from Antebellum America to the Harlem Renaissance, authors Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp and Kathryn Lofton observe that

(Her) poems, (Heard) explained, “come from a heart that desires to encourage and inspire the youth of the Race to pure and noble motives.” Morning Gories sought to inspire black children through powerful images of home, hope, Sabbath, bells, mockingbirds, and Easter morning. Including elegies for several prominent church leaders, Morning Glories collected over seventy poems and included an introduction by African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner. The poems “may here and there come short,” noted Tanner, “but for brightess and imagination, for readiness of expression, and now and then for delicateness of touch, they are genuinely poetical” and may “redeem the good name of the Race.”

…”They come!” Heard exclaims, announcing the arrival of a new generation of doctors, lawyers, and preachers who will attend universities and, as she says in “They are Coming,” “who with honor yet shall shine.” The pulse of the poems is pressing and urgent, marking a historical moment that, for Heard, anticipated a brighter day ahead… Steeped in Christian imagery and transformative opportunity, the poems od Joesphine Heard presage the era of the ‘New Negro,’ when men and women alike would break all fetters to obtian their rights.


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