On November 16, 1871, a group of unknown singers -- all but two of
them former slaves and many of them still in their teens -- arrived at
Oberlin College in Ohio to perform before a national convention of
influential ministers. After a few standard ballads, the chorus began to
sing spirituals -- "Steal Away" and other songs" associated with slavery
and the dark past, sacred to our parents," as soprano Ella Sheppard
recalled. It was one of the first public performances of the secret
music African Americans had sung in fields and behind closed doors.
"All of a sudden, there was no talking," says musicologist Horace
Boyer. "They said you could hear the soft weeping . . . and I’m sure
that the Jubilee Singers were joining them in tears, because sometimes
when you think about what you are singing, particularly if you believe
it, you can’t help but be moved."
"Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory," produced by Llewellyn Smith,
tells the story of a group of former slaves who battled prejudice and
oppression to sing their way into a nation’s heart. Eventually, they
would perform for presidents and queens, tour the United States and
Europe, and establish songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "This
Little Light of Mine" as a cherished part of the nation’s musical
heritage. The program features today’s Fisk Jubilee Singers performing
these and many other spirituals; Dion Graham narrates.
The concert in Oberlin was the turning point in a daring fundraising
experiment for impoverished Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee,
where the singers were students. Established in January 1866, Fisk
taught freed slaves how to count their wages, how to write the new names
they had chosen for themselves, and read both the ballot and the Bible.
Despite emancipation, the South was a dangerous place: Fisk students who
dared teach in the countryside were routinely assaulted and whipped by
Ku Klux Klan nightriders; one was shot at in his classroom; another had
her school building burned to the ground.
Charged with keeping the financially troubled school afloat,
treasurer George Leonard White proposed taking Fisk’s most gifted
singers on a fundraising tour of the North. Before they even left town,
they encountered resistance: the parents were afraid to let their
children go; White’s fellow teachers opposed the tour; and the American
Missionary Association, the northern religious organization that
operated Fisk, refused to help, worried that the chorus’s appeal for
funds would jeopardize their own fundraising activities. But White
persevered. "I’m depending on God, not you," he told the AMA, and set
off with his singers and the last $40 of the school’s treasury. "Not one
of us had an overcoat or wrap," remembered Ella Sheppard. "Taking every
cent he had, and all he could borrow, Mr. White started with his little
band of singers to sing the money out of the hearts and pockets of
Following the path of the Underground Railway, the group made its
debut in Cincinnati. Despite the warm reception, donations totaled less
than $50. Night after night, it was the same: crowds loved their
singing, but the collection plate yielded barely enough to cover their
expenses. Yet no one turned back. "All we wanted," recalled soprano
Maggie Porter, "was for Fisk to stand."
Life on the road took its toll. White and the singers endured
rheumatism, bronchitis, chronic coughs. Their clothes ran to rags. But
after the triumphant Oberlin performance, word started to spread. In
December, the Jubilee Singers appeared at Henry Ward Beecher’s weekly
prayer meeting at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church. "Every church wanted the
Jubilee Singers from that time on," wrote Maggie Porter. They sang for
Mark Twain, President Ulysses S. Grant, congressmen, diplomats. "These
singers," said one newspaper, "are doing a great work for humanity."
Ella Sheppard wrote, "We sang as if inspired. We not only paid the
debts at home, we carried home $20,000 with which was purchased the site
of our new school. We returned to Fisk amid great rejoicing."
After less than two weeks’ rest, the singers were back on the road,
touring the Eastern United States. Eventually they would tour Europe to
universal acclaim and sing for the royal families of Holland, Germany,
and Britain. "They are real Negroes," Queen Victoria wrote in her
journal. "They come from America and have been slaves. They sing
extremely well together."
The group raised what today would be millions of dollars, but they
paid a terrible price. Worn down by the relentless schedule, an advance
man suffered a nervous breakdown. George White lost his wife to typhoid
fever. White himself nearly died of a pulmonary hemorrhage. Contralto
Minnie Tate’s voice was torn to shreds. Tenor Benjamin Holmes’s nagging
cough was caused by tuberculosis. They faced discrimination on the road
and from the press. The "New York World" called them "trained monkeys"
who sang "with a wild darky air" and the "Newark Evening Courier" listed
them as if they were items from a slave dealer’s catalogue. A grueling
tour of Germany -- ninety-eight days, forty-one towns, sixty-eight
concerts -- brought with it low morale, frayed nerves, and rivalries
among the singers.
After almost seven years of touring, the Jubilee Singers returned
home. They were honored by Fisk for raising the funds to complete
Jubilee Hall and save their school.
But their contributions extended far beyond Fisk University. They had
introduced the world to the power of spirituals and challenged racial
stereotypes on two continents. "In their wake, hotels, railways,
steamship lines, and boards of education integrated their facilities.
The Jubilees not only introduced the world to the music of black
America, they championed the liberties of all Americans," says Andrew
Ward, co-writer of the documentary and author of "Dark Midnight When I
Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers." More than 125 years later, the
Jubilee Singers of Fisk University continue the concert tradition begun
by that courageous original chorus of former slaves.