They Brought The Jubilee

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“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 SPIRITUAL ITSELF SURVIVED AS A bridge between black and white America. Even as the last of the original Jubilees passed away, the tradition was being carried forward by Jubilee choruses from not only Fisk but other black schools like Hampton, Tuskegee, and Howard. They were resurrected in the concerts and recordings of Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and the great baritone Roland Hayes.

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.

HEARING THE JUBILEE