Fisk Jubilee Singers
The Fisk Jubilee Singers are the premier choral ensemble of African American musicians, who garnered international acclaim performing concertarranged versions of the spirituals—the great sacred songs of their ancestors—while raising funds to support Fisk University.
In January of 1866, only 6 months after the American Civil War ended, Fisk University was founded in an abandoned army hospital barracks in Nashville, Tennessee. The university was established under the auspices of the American Missionary Association with the purpose of training former enslaved Africans to be teachers. With hundreds of eager students, Fisk struggled financially in its early years, and by 1868, it was on the brink of collapse. Recognizing the musical talents of many of the young students, music teacher and treasurer George White organized a chorus of Fisk students and appointed an 18-year-old student named Ella Sheppard assistant choral director.
Building a Constituency
The chorus began singing in neighboring towns for donations for their school—despite the dangers they faced from local whites, who were threatening and assaulting Fisk students for teaching at rural schools. In October of 1871, White took the first group of nine singers on a fund-raising tour of the Northern states. Despite the reluctance of the students' parents and the opposition of other teachers at Fisk, and with no support from the American Missionary Association, the group started in Cincinnati and followed the network of abolitionist homes and churches that had previously assisted enslaved Africans in escaping to Canada. They sang in churches, at private parties and teas, and in busy streets. They endured filthy boarding houses, were treated badly at hotels and on railways, and suffered ill health from the lack of adequate clothing in the cold weather, as they remained dedicated to acquiring funds to keep Fisk alive.
Initially, the group sang the popular songs of the day in their performances, and they only sang the spirituals privately. They had not thought of singing the spirituals in public because the songs were, as Ella Sheppard said, “sacred” to their parents. But with the prompting of their musical director, they began to use the spirituals for their encores. Ella Sheppard later related, “It was only after many months that gradually our hearts were opened to the wonderful beauty and power of our songs.” Their singing of the spirituals was so well received that they began to incorporate more of them into their repertoire. Ella Sheppard began teaching and providing musical arrangements of the familiar spirituals and new melodies as the group drilled and rehearsed while on tour. The highlights of their first tour included a performance at Oberlin College in Ohio for a national convention of ministers, sold-out performances in Connecticut with hundreds being turned away in New Haven and Hartford, and a performance before President Ulysses S. Grant in a concert hall full of congressmen and diplomats.
Popularity and Acclaim
From this first tour of 6 months, they were able not only to pay Fisk's debts but also to donate $20,000 for the purchase of 25 acres of land on which Fisk University is located. The self-determination and self-reliance of the group did indeed ensure the future of their school, and their bold confrontation with Northern racism triggered some significant social changes. After they were refused accommodations on the Pullman cars, George Pullman integrated the cars—and they stayed integrated for another quarter century. Schools were opened to black children for the first time in New Jersey by the embarrassed Board of Education when a New Jersey hotel manager put the group out after learning that they were not minstrel singers. And, they set an example for other black schools, such as Hampton Institute, which began their own choral ensembles.
With only 2 weeks of rest after their first tour, the Fisk Jubilee Singers (who had begun to call themselves the Jubilee Singers) reorganized, and in April of 1873 the group of 11 singers launched their first tour abroad when they traveled to the British Isles. With a full and difficult schedule, their concerts, portraits, and songbooks were sold out, and books and newspapers were chronicling their history and success. In the spring of 1874, the Jubilee Singers returned home with $50,000 for the construction of Jubilee Hall. Despite all of the singers' sacrifice, Jubilee Hall remained only a hole in the ground because the American Missionary Association had been borrowing heavily from what the singers earned to stave off its own bankruptcy. Thus the exhausted Jubilee Singers were asked to go on yet a third tour. With only 3 of the original 11 singers remaining, the group set out for an extensive tour in America and Europe. They traveled to Great Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, and Sweden, as well as to Germany, where they did an astonishing tour of 68 concerts in 41 towns in 98 days, not including impromptu performances in churches, trains, and private homes.
Returning to Nashville, the Jubilee Singers were honored by Fisk for raising over $160,000 to complete Jubilee Hall and save their school. Jubilee Hall remains today as one of the oldest structures in use at Fisk University, and it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1884, the Jubilee Singers began a 6-year world tour, and the Jubilee Singers tradition became a permanent institution at Fisk University. Today, the ensemble is made up of students from various disciplines at Fisk and from all over the United States, and the singers continue to perform for audiences throughout the world. In 2000, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Thus the contributions of the Jubilee Singers extend far beyond Fisk University. They not only introduced the spiritual to the world but also helped preserve the music of African American ancestors for posterity.
- Fisk Jubilee Singers
- Fisk University
- American Missionary Association
- fund raising
- Anderson, Toni Passmore. (in press). The Original Fisk Jubilee Singers: Introducing the Spiritual to the European World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. This is a history of the famous group.
- Our Jubilee Singers. fisk.edu Retrieved June 22, 2004.
- Richardson, Joe M. (1980). A History of Fisk University, 1865–1946. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. This is the authoritative history of Fisk.
- Ward, Andrew. (2000). Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This is one of the most important works on the story of the Jubilee Singers.