- Historic Sites
They Brought The Jubilee
How a small group of former slaves taught the world about black music, the promise of emancipation, and the meaning of the Civil War
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
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.’”
“Tell them we are delighted with their songs…,” said Queen Victoria.
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.