African-American History Month: Jubilee Singers

“We stand on the shoulders of the original Jubilee Singers, continuing their legacy, as we sing Negro spirituals.”

Fisk University found itself in dire financial straits in 1871, its doors potentially set to close if its administrators couldn’t raise the money they needed to stay open.  George White, a music professor and treasurer at the facility, compiled a group of nine members–all former slaves–and developed a chorus.  On October 6, 1871, the group embarked on a tour, intent to raise money to save their school.  The 6th of October remains Jubilee Day at the historic college to this day.

They were met with opposition from the very beginning.  Belittled, heckled and accosted along their trip, the Jubilee Singers gave concert after concert persevering through the racism they met at nearly every city.  Many became ill: stressed and worn down by exhaustion and cruelty.  But their beautiful voices quickly began to change attitudes on their tour, predominantly among white audiences.  Consistently striving forward, in spite of the odds, jeers toward the singers were progressively replaced with standing ovations and encore requests.  Finally, the Jubilee Singers–so named by their director for the year of Jubilee in biblical Leviticus–returned home with all the funds they needed to save their school.

Their notoriety spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before they were requested by other schools, programs, and businesses.  They won the World Peace Festival in Boston, Massachusetts in 1872 and shortly after, performed at the White House for Ulysses Grant.  In 1873, the Jubilee Singers embarked on a tour of Europe, the first trip of what would become many.  That tour provided the funds for a building that stands on campus to this day, Jubilee Hall.

A movie, Jubilee Singers, Sacrifice and Glory, was made to retell their story.  Passionate and inspiring, the film brings the singers’ post-Civil War turmoil to life, highlighting their fears and pains while celebrating their unyielding faith and perseverance.  Courage insurmountable elevated the Jubilee Singers to world wide respect and stardom.

Now, Fisk University proudly continues the original choir’s tradition with a powerful throng of strong African-American male and female voices, singing nothing but Negro spirituals.  The group has become legendary, although often unsung.  Recent Fisk University Jubilee Singers have performed at Carnegie Hall, the White House, and even the far reaches of Ghana and South Africa.  The video below is a tribute created to honor the group; the accompanying track is “Oh my Lord” performed by the 2005-2006 choir for the “Sacred Journey” album released in 2007.

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