They Brought The Jubilee

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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.

ON THE FIFTEENTH OF NOVEMBER, WHITE and his singers limped up to the annual conference of the National Congregational Council at Oberlin, Ohio. Oberlin was home to the country’s first racially integrated college, a training ground for missionaries to the freedmen; many of Fisk’s faculty were graduates. White hoped for a welcome, but the council agreed to let his “colored songsters” sing only during an intermission.

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.