Sankofa Studies

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and The Negro Spiritual

February 17, 2021

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were organized as a fundraising effort for Fisk University. The historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded by the American Missionary Association and local supporters after the end of the American Civil War to educate freedmen and other young African Americans. The five-year-old university was facing serious financial difficulty. To avert bankruptcy and closure, Fisk’s treasurer and music director, George L. White, a white Northern missionary, gathered a nine-member student chorus to go on tour to earn money for the university. On October 6, 1871, the group of students, consisting of two quartets and a pianist, started their U.S. tour under White’s direction. They first performed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Over the next 18 months, the group toured through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. The group and their pastor, Henry Bennett, prayed about whether to continue with the tour. White went off to pray as well; he believed that they needed a name to capture audience attention. The next morning, he met with the singers and said “Children, it shall be Jubilee Singers in memory of the Jewish year of Jubilee.” This was a reference to Jubilee described in the book of Leviticus in the Bible. Each fiftieth Pentecost was followed by a “year of jubilee” in which all slaves would be set free. Since most of the students at Fisk University and their families were newly freed slaves, the name “Jubilee Singers” seemed fitting.

The Jubilee Singers’ performances were a departure from the familiar “black minstrel” genre of white musicians’ performing in blackface. As the tour continued, audiences came to appreciate the singers’ voices, and the group began to be praised. The Jubilee Singers are credited with the early popularization of the Negro spiritual tradition among white and northern audiences in the late 19th century; many were previously unaware of its existence. After the rough start, the first United States tours eventually earned $40,000 for Fisk University.In early 1872 the group performed at the World’s Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival in Boston, and they were invited to perform for President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House in March of that year.In a tour of Great Britain and Europe in 1873, the group, by then with 11 members, performed “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Go Down, Moses” for Queen Victoria in April. Queen Victoria was so impressed by the Singers that she commented that with such beautiful voices, they had to be from the Music City of the United States. Hence, the moniker for Nashville, Tennessee – Music City USA – was born.

They returned the following year, they sailed to Europe again, touring from May 1875 to July 1878. This tour raised an estimated $150,000 for the university, funds used to construct Fisk’s first permanent building. Named Jubilee Hall, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and still stands.The Negro Spiritual has become one of the most respected and beloved genres of American music the world over having sustained its longevity and popularity for more than one hundred and thirty years once it came to public’s awareness. Credit for bringing this genre of music to the public’s attention is given to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and rightly so. However, the sustaining of this music tradition is certainly due to the continued performances of choirs in Historically Black Colleges and Universities across America, since the Fisk Jubilee Singers first brought these songs to the attention of America. Because of one valiant student who after a prayer was prayed, in a conference at Oberlin College, softly began to sing the spiritual, “Steal Away.” Since that one spontaneous moment these songs quickly became some of Americas most beloved music.


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