They Brought The Jubilee


IN THE LATE 1860S BLACK STUDENTS excavating the grounds of a Nashville freedmen’s school called Fisk University made a grim discovery: heaps of chains and manacles from Porter’s Slave Yard, where African-American men, women, and children had once been bought and sold. The students did not let these relics of their bondage lie buried but instead sold them for scrap iron. With the proceeds they bought Bibles and spellers, turning the instruments of their enslavement into the agencies of their liberation.

In the fall of 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers would use the same alchemy to rescue their school from oblivion. Impoverished, bedraggled, they would take the secret hymns of their bondage and not only “sing up the walls of a great university” but teach the world about the dignity and educability of black Americans.

Fisk University began as the Fisk Free Colored School, one of an archipelago of freedmen’s schools established throughout the postwar South by Northern missionaries. An outpost of the abolitionist American Missionary Association (A.M.A.), the school was named after the local Freedmen’s Bureau commander, Gen. Clinton Bowen Fisk. The general had convinced the government to give the school’s zealous and entrepreneurial founders a large complex of Union Army hospital barracks set in the midst of a squalid encampment of former slaves who had fled to Yankee-occupied Nashville in the middle of the war.

As slaves, some African-Americans had risked death to learn to read and write. With emancipation they descended on missionary schools in the hundreds of thousands, determined to learn the trick of literacy that seemed to many of them to be the key to white hegemony. “Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes,” wrote Booker T. Washington, “can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for an education…it was a whole race trying to go to school.”

It was difficult for missionaries to persuade freedmen to sing spirituals.

Some radical seminarians worked among the freedmen because no congregation would have them as ministers, but most had emerged from the Civil War believing that the redemption of emancipated slaves was a holy calling. Among the most dynamic of these Northern toilers was Fisk’s treasurer, a Gettysburg veteran named George Leonard White.

TO WHITE FELL THE ONEROUS DUTY OF trying to collect fees from his pupils and their impoverished parents, but his real calling was music. A choirmaster before the war and a band sergeant on the Union Army’s marches, he possessed an exquisite ear for harmony. Ever since coming to Fisk, he had been moved by the singing of his students, and he began to assemble his most promising pupils into a troupe.

To demonstrate their ability to absorb the culture of white America, they initially performed contemporary works—popular songs, European classics—but nothing so touched Northern missionaries as the religious songs they sometimes chanced to overhear. Before they came to be called spirituals or Jubilees , these folk hymns were known as plantation melodies, slave hymns , and sorrow songs .

It was difficult sometimes for Northern missionaries to persuade freedmen to sing them. “We did not dream of ever using them in public,” explained White’s African-American assistant Ella Sheppard. “They were associated with slavery and the dark past, and represented the things to be forgotten.” Nevertheless, White began to collect and arrange them. Sheppard brought him “O Freedom” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” songs her mother had taught her. A washerwoman’s daughter named Jennie Jackson apparently introduced him to “I’ll Hear the Trumpet Sound,” which she had learned from an elderly slave. Sheppard transcribed these and a host of other slave hymns until by 1881 she and White had collected well over a hundred.

Some think spirituals emerged full blown from individuals, others that they were the result of the folk process, the aggregate expression of an entire people. The usual musical form of the spiritual—alternating verses and choruses, call and response—extends back into the rituals and work songs of Africa. The sturdy harmonies of Southern blacks around the time of the Civil War also derived from the influence of the Protestant choirs many of them had heard and sung along with in their masters’ churches.

But nothing influenced the form and content of the spiritual more than the sheer experience of bondage. Spirituals pulsed with the rhythm of labor: hoeing, chopping, toting, shucking. They not only declared faith but also carried news, raised protests, expressed grief, asked questions, made jokes, and lubricated a slave’s never-ending toil.

“There is no parallel instance,” wrote an early student of spirituals, “of an oppressed race thus sustained by the religious sentiment alone.” But in the African tradition of hitting “a straight lick with a crooked stick,” spirituals conveyed many meanings simultaneously. “Paradise,” “Canaan,” “the Promised Land” could stand for heaven, the North, Canada, or emancipation. “Freedom” could mean release from the grief and toil of this life, or it could mean independence, autonomy, and escape from slavery.