How a small group of former slaves taught the world about black music, the promise of emancipation, and the meaning of the Civil War
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.”
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 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.
By 1871 Fisk was teetering on the brink of collapse, and the A.M.A. seemed on the verge of writing off the school. White proposed taking his best singers on the road, leading them northward on a fundraising concert tour, up the route of the old Underground Railroad.
By the time they embarked on their tour, George White’s young singers had already led lives of travail and transcendence. Ella Sheppard’s father had purchased her freedom after her mother tried to spare her the corruption of slavery by attempting to drown her in a river. Having taught himself to write as a tailor’s apprentice, Benjamin Holmes had read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation while imprisoned in a slave pen. After the war he braved the potshots of hostile whites to teach freedmen in a country school. Before coming to Nashville, Thomas Rutling had tried to save the life of a Yankee soldier from Southern home guards. Though born free, Jennie Jackson was nearly re-enslaved by the white trustee her mother’s former mistress had assigned to look after her property. Isaac Dickerson, his master’s valet in the Civil War, taught in freedmen’s schools, where he defied the racist threats and slogans daubed on the trees and fence posts. As a young teenager the fearless Maggie Porter also taught in a country school. When white arsonists burned it down, she proceeded to teach in yet another country school.
Although the singers were devoted to their messianic choirmaster, everyone else seemed to think his scheme was harebrained, sure to bring shame and ridicule upon not only his young singers but also Fisk and the American Missionary Association. But White was adamant: “‘Tis root, hog, or die; I’m depending on God, not you.”
Finally, White and nine of his acolytes climbed aboard a train, bound for Cincinnati. “Not one of us had an overcoat or wrap,” recalled Ella Sheppard. “Mr. White had an old gray shawl.…Taking every cent he had, all the school treasury could spare, and all he could borrow,…Mr. White started, in God’s strength, October 6, 1871, with his little band of singers to sing the money out of the hearts and pockets of the people.”
Though the singers had navigated the shoals of Southern racism, nothing had prepared them for the hazards and havens that awaited them in the randomly segregated North. Nor had anything prepared Northern whites for Fisk’s young choir. What little black culture they had experienced was of the cartoon “Darktown” variety and the burnt-cork minstrel troupes that strutted across the stages of the day. Even the pious Yankees who attended White’s first concerts took their seats expecting to be amused.
As the train approached Cincinnati, White declared himself “confident that the expectations of the most sanguine will be more than realized.” But though their first audiences received them warmly, they raised less money than it took to feed, house, and transport themselves.
White began to show signs of the rheumatism and consumption that already plagued his charge Benjamin Holmes, and skinny, stalwart Ella Sheppard became so ill that her doctor said she must return to Nashville. But White refused to give her permission and grimly pressed ahead.
As the delegates milled about, White crawled along the pew, giving his singers their pitch. At his signal they began to sing “Steal Away,” his favorite spiritual. No sooner had they lifted their voices than the assembly was spellbound. “The singing was really fine…,” wrote the local paper. “A collection was taken up for their benefit, which resulted in a market basket-full of scrip and greenbacks.”
But people still did not know what to make of the singers or even what to call them. A few days after their Oberlin concert, White prayed on the matter. “[The] ‘year of Jubilee’ has been talked of and sung of so much…,” he wrote his brother-in-law, “that I can think of no expression…that so nearly gives the idea as ‘the Jubilee Singers.’”
On December 27 the Jubilees staggered into Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, whose minister, Henry Ward Beecher, was the most popular preacher of the day. “The girls, dressed in water-proofs, and clothed about the neck with long woolen comforters to protect their throats, stood in a row in front…,” recalled an observer. “The first hymn they sang was ‘O, How I Love Jesus!’ and I shall never forget the rich tones of the young men as they mingled their voices in a melody so beautiful and touching I scarcely knew whether I was ‘in body or out of body.’”
Beecher commanded his wealthy parishioners to give generously to the Jubilees’ cause. Suddenly churches and theaters opened to them. Audiences were ecstatic. Over the next six weeks the Fisk Jubilee Singers filled churches, theaters, and music halls.
White saw to it that their musical influence spread beyond the audiences that thronged to see them. “Our songs…were sold at our concerts during the intermission. Soon the land rang with our slave songs, sung in the homes of the people,” Sheppard later wrote. They dipped down to Washington to sing “Go Down, Moses” for the unmusical President Grant.
The A.M.A. scrambled to catch up. Members opened their homes to the singers en route, and a Fisk founder named Erastus Milo Cravath resigned as A.M.A. secretary to become president of the college. Within three months of the group’s departure from Nashville, “We not only had paid the debts at home of nearly $1,500,” Ella Sheppard wrote, “and furnished other money for support of Fisk;… we carried home $20,000, with which was purchased the present site of…our new school.”
Anxious to keep striking while the iron was hot, White gave his reorganized troupe only one week to recuperate and visit with friends and family before setting out on an even more ambitious tour.
At the World Peace Jubilee on July 4, 1872, their rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung at a difficult high pitch, turned a hissing, prejudiced audience of forty thousand into a cheering, waving multitude of fans. The Jubilee Singers were the first black performers ever to appear in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, and they sang night after night to full houses.
By the spring of 1873 the Jubilee Singers had raised another twenty thousand dollars and accumulated a sheaf of letters of recommendation from prominent Americans, including an unusually effusive Mark Twain. “I do not know when anything has so moved me as did the plaintive melodies of the Jubilee Singers…,” he wrote English friends. “It was the first time for twenty-five or thirty years, that I had heard such songs, or heard them sung in the genuine old way…that white people cannot imitate—and never can, for that matter, for one must have been a slave himself in order to feel what that life was and so convey the pathos of it in the music.”
Twain was one of many fans to urge the singers to perform in Britain. In March 1873 they set sail with White and his wife and children. On May 6 the Jubilee Singers performed at an exclusive London venue known as Willis’s Rooms. They were introduced by their British sponsor, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, head of Britain’s Freedmen’s Missions Aid Society and perhaps the greatest social reformer in English history. An observer wrote that “before the programme was half finished, they had carried their audience by storm.”
They were invited the next morning to the manor house of the Duke of Argyll, where they were astonished to perform for none other than Queen Victoria herself. “Poor ignorant me!” exclaimed Maggie Porter. “I received the greatest disappointment of my life. The Queen wore no crown, no robes of state. She was like many English ladies I had seen in her widow’s cap and weeds. But it was the Queen in flesh and blood. I saw her; I heard her deep, low voice saying, ‘Tell them we are delighted with their songs, and that we wish them to sing ‘John Brown.’”
The choir was greeted two days later at Westminster Abbey, where Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley offered to sponsor Isaac Dickerson’s education at Edinburgh. Prime Minister William Gladstone, himself the son of a slaveholder, invited them to his house to entertain, among others, the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia.
The singers enjoyed playing to the ignorance of some of their fans. One day a woman loudly asked Mabel Lewis if the Jubilees could speak English. Lewis replied, “Ugh?”
“Do you speak English or do you just learn the songs?”
“Baca migly pan mar tu,” Lewis answered.
“I guess they do not talk,” concluded the woman, “they only sing in English.”
The singers tended to laugh off such encounters as indications not of racism so much as ignorance and curiosity. In fact, they found themselves welcomed wholeheartedly throughout Britain, admitted to the best hotels and restaurants and invited for weekends at country estates. They even entertained stage-door proposals of marriage. Jennie Jackson turned down numerous young men, and Dickerson and Rutling disappointed a string of English maidens.
Their triumphs in Britain came at a steep cost. Their advance man suffered a nervous breakdown, and after his wife died in Glasgow, White collapsed with a pulmonary hemorrhage. With the help of British volunteers and under Ella Sheppard’s direction, the singers pressed on without their maestro, and by the time of their return to Nashville in 1874 they had raised another fifty thousand dollars for the construction of Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building on Fisk’s new campus.
“No one can estimate the vast amount of prejudice against the race which has perished under the spell of their marvelous music,” proclaimed Fisk’s trustees. “Wherever they have gone they have proclaimed to the hearts of men…the brotherhood of the race.”
The Jubilees and their managers were exhausted. Refusing to return to American segregation, Isaac Dickerson quit the troupe to accept Dean Stanley’s offer of an education. The outstanding young contralto Minnie Tate had sung her voice to shreds and was forced to retire, as was the consumptive Benjamin Holmes. Nevertheless, the surviving singers had evolved into substantial and ambitious young men and women who agreed to resume their touring only on the condition that they be treated as paid professionals.
Among White’s new recruits was twenty-year-old America Robinson. Like Lewis, Robinson was shocked by the singers’ encounters with American racism. “This morning there was combat on our behalf,” she reported while on tour in Brooklyn in March 1875. “A southern man was enraged because the proprietor took us in. A northerner asserted that if we had been refused admittance, he would have taken his departure and told the southerner that he was a half ‘nigger’ himself. The southerner attempted to throw the paper at the northerner so the northerner struck him on the mouth with a chair. Many boarders threatened to leave.”
To these indignities the marketplace had added a host of rival black companies intent on cashing in on the Jubilee Singers’ success. Dubbing themselves “The Original Nashville Students,” “The Jubilee Singers” (of a nonexistent Jackson University), and “The Canaan Jubilee Singers,” they began to use up the Jubilees’ audience.
The company returned to a warm welcome in Great Britain and in February 1876 sailed to Holland, where they garnered another ten thousand dollars and demonstrated that they and their music could break through the language barrier.
It must have seemed to the A.M.A. that the singers’ fundraising potential was limitless. Cravath began to plan new tours. But by now, once-vigorous young men and women who had survived the deprivations of slavery were worn out; Ella Sheppard’s doctor warned her that if she continued with the Jubilees, she would die. Moreover, after living together for so long, singing the same repertoire night after night, putting up with each person’s crotchets and frailties, and carrying the special burden of representing their entire race, the singers had grown heartily sick of one another.
Through all this strife, Ella Sheppard tried to intercede, but it was a bitter task. The singers regarded her as a tool of the managers, especially after White resigned and Cravath demanded that she replace him as music director.
“My very soul recoils from it,” Sheppard wrote. ”…I cannot feel it right for me to remain yet to go would make matters worse. If I stay I must face probably fatal results!” After praying on the matter, she rededicated herself to what she regarded as a sacred mission and accepted the directorship on the sole condition that she and the exhausted Jubilees be allowed to return home at the end of their current engagements. But rather than thank her for further risking her life for the sake of his university, Cravath accused Sheppard of desertion.
“Tho’ I live to be an old woman—” she confided to her diary, “the scar of that word ‘ Desert ’ will remain upon my heart. As hard as I’ve worked for seven years—late and early doing extra work—to at last be called a deserter!!!”
In May 1878 White sailed home, leaving the troupe to trudge on through Germany and into Switzerland. By now it was apparent even to Cravath that the singers were reaching the end of their rope. At their last concert, on July 1, 1878, relations among them had so deteriorated that Thomas Rutling, the former Tennessee slave boy who, like Sheppard, had performed almost without rest for seven long years, refused to sing at all.
Five days later a disconsolate Ella Sheppard and what was left of her choir set sail for the United States. As their ship approached American waters, the worn-out troupe sang together for the final time, in a performance that was a microcosm of everything they had passed through.
“This evening we sang again,” Sheppard wrote in the last entry in her diary. ”…Cabin full. After much singing we sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and answered the encore with ‘John Brown.’…The second verse we [emphasized] particularly as there were Southerners present. [A Virginian] said, ‘Damn John Brown,’ when we brought out the words with such vim & enjoyment. All the rest were delighted. Many wept during the evening & one lady followed me to my room weeping [and] threw her arms around my neck [and], kissing me, cried, ‘I never thought I would or could kiss a Negro before! I do thank you. I never felt such music before.…’ How much good we might do not only for others but for our people and hearts. May our Father forgive us.”
It took some of the Jubilees many years before they could fully recognize what they had accomplished. Of the troupe, only America Robinson actually graduated from Fisk, and not one of the Jubilee Singers returned to the school they had sacrificed so much to rescue. Thomas Rutling and Isaac Dickerson never returned to the United States but worked as teachers and evangelists in England. America Robinson stayed in Europe for a time, but eventually she returned to the South and became a champion of black education in Mississippi. Maggie Porter became a leading cultural figure in Detroit’s African-American community. For most of her life she refused all invitations even to visit Fisk, relenting only as a very old lady in 1931.
Ella Sheppard eventually returned to Nashville as the wife of George Moore, a prominent black minister. A mentor to subsequent Jubilee troupes, she became one of the most respected women of her day, a confidante of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.
George White died of consumption in 1895. At his memorial service at Fisk, several members of his old troupe gathered to sing his favorite spiritual, “Steal Away.”
No troupe of singers could have held back the deluge of racism that swept through the country after the Civil War. But no troupe of singers ever did more to try to evoke the better angels of America’s nature. In their encounters with American racism, the Jubilees resolutely turned their own humiliation against those who discriminated against them, shaming hoteliers, railway magnates, school boards, politicians, impresarios, churches, theater managers, and travel agents into changing their ways. Their victories were sometimes temporary and selective, but by accepting the burden of personifying their people’s aspirations, they made the cause of the freedmen, once the exclusive province of radicals and missionaries, plausible and respectable among vast numbers of American whites.
The folk-music revival of the 1950s reintroduced them to white audiences, but the spiritual saw its most dramatic revival during the civil rights movement, when demonstrators sang, “No more auction block for me,” “This little light of mine,” and “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave,” the very lyrics Ella Sheppard’s mother had sung for her and which Ella, in her turn, had taught the Jubilees.
The popularity of spirituals seems to rise when, in the anguished history of American race relations, new generations of blacks and whites revive the same hope for justice and reconciliation that animated the original Jubilees. It recedes when the gulf between black and white Americans widens, for singing these ancient outpourings from the heart of bondage demands a level of trust from black performers, and of understanding from white audiences, that sometimes proves elusive. Among some African-Americans the spiritual’s enduring appeal to white audiences has made it suspect. Today it is sometimes dismissed as a relic not just of slavery but of accommodationism.
Still, even as the Jubilee tradition ebbs and flows, the singers’ contribution to American music is as permanent as it is incalculable. The Jubilees helped rescue American music from its obsequious bondage to the secondhand trappings of the English and European tradition. They were the fountainhead of a continuing stream of musicians who trace their inspiration back to the praise and sorrow songs that Ella Sheppard and her schoolmates first shyly performed for their white mentor 130 years ago, in the curtained dark of Fisk’s decaying barracks.