No, contrary to popular belief, this song did not originate as a African-American spiritual. It actually made it into the American folk music tradition when it was found and documented by John Lomax in 1939. At Goree State Farm in Huntsville, Texas, Lomax recorded Doris McMurray singing the spiritual. The recording can still be found in the Library of Congress archives.
The author is Harry Dixon Loes, a gospel songwriter and music director from Michigan who worked at the Moody Bible Institute. The song was written for children in the 1920s. It sounds similar to other Southern spirituals of the time which probably accounts for it’s often mistaken attribution (even in hymnals).
It was popularized during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and is still used in Sunday Schools today. We often sing it on Via de Cristo weekends. The repetitive lyrics are lively and easy to learn.