They Brought The Jubilee


“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.”

Rival black companies cashed in on the Jubilees’ success.

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.

FISK’S NEW PRESIDENT, ERASTUS MILO Cravath, took a leave to assist the by now overwhelmed George L. White. Cravath’s messianic zeal and entrepreneurial flair were a match for White’s, but unlike White, he was inexhaustible and incapable of understanding the toll that a huge repertoire and relentless scheduling was taking on the troupe. Cravath audaciously arranged for a tour of Germany, the wellspring of the European choral tradition and the nineteenth-century arbiter of musical taste. Again the Jubiläums-Sänger triumphed. “What wealth of shading!” exclaimed the Berliner Musik Zeitung . “What accuracy of declamation!…the performances of these Singers are the result of high artistic talent, finely trained taste, and extraordinary diligence.…”

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.