Black News and News Makers in History: Fisk Jubilee Singers

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes the Fisk Jubilee Singers this week in Black history.The original Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced 'slave songs' to the world in 1871 and were instrumental in preserving this unique American musical tradition known today as Negro spirituals. They broke racial barriers in the United States and abroad in the late 19th century and entertained Kings and Queens in Europe. At the same time, they raised money in support of their beloved school.
Fisk University opened in Nashville in 1866 as the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to "young men and women irrespective of color." Five years later the school was in dire financial straits. George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor then, created a nine-member choral a cappella ensemble of students and took it on tour to earn money for the University.

The group left campus on October 6, 1871. Jubilee Day is celebrated annually on October 6 to commemorate this historic day.

The initial response included surprise, curiosity, and some hostility as they did not perform in the expected minstrel fashion. Eventually, skepticism was replaced by standing ovations and critical praise in reviews. The singers were the first to publicly perform songs sung by slaves prior to the Civil War, and would often move their audiences to tears. As they toured, the fortunes of the singers took a turn for the better. They began to send sorely needed money back to their school.

On November 16, 1871, the Fisk Jubilee singers, all but two former slaves and many still in their teens, arrived at Oberlin College in Ohio to perform before a national convention of ministers. After a few standard ballads the chorus sang spirituals and other songs associated with slavery. It was one of the first public performances of the secret music African Americans sang in the fields and behind closed doors for generations.

In 1872 they sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston and at the end of the year President Ulysses S. Grant invited them to perform at the White House.

In 1873 the group grew to eleven members and toured Europe for the first time. Funds raised that year were used to construct the school's first permanent building, Jubilee Hall. Today Jubilee Hall, designated a National Historic Landmark by the US Department of Interior in 1975, is one of the oldest structures on campus. The beautiful Victorian Gothic building houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria in during the 1873 tour as a gift from England to Fisk.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to perform worldwide and have earned numerous awards including:

  • 1996--Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the National Arts Club of New York
  • 2000--Inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame
  • 2004--Dove Award for Poor Man Lazarus in the CD "In Bright Mansions"
  • 2006--Music City Walk of Fame
  • 2008--National Medal of Arts

In 1999, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were featured in Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory, a PBS award-winning television documentary series, produced by WGBH/Boston.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers continue the tradition of singing the Negro spiritual around the world. This allows the ensemble to share this rich culture globally while preserving this unique music. ou can listen to them on the Kennedy Center site.

Compiled from http://www.fiskjubileesingers.org/our_history.html and http://www.anothershadeofcolor.com.