By Jennifer Watts
Tennessee has rich musical traditions. From folk, country, blues, and gospel, music has been an important part of the state’s legacy. The Fisk Jubilee Singers is one musical group that has been performing for over 150 years! They have traveled the world and performed for some of the most famous people in history including a United States President and a Queen! The story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is one of hardships and success. Let’s learn more about how this singing group began.
Carte-de-visite of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers (1871-1872 season), Tennessee State Museum Collection, 2018.14.14
(Left to Right: Minnie Tate, Greene Evans, Isaac Dickerson, Jennie Jackson, Maggie Porter, Ella Sheppard, Thomas Rutling, Benjamin Holmes, and Eliza Walker)
Our story begins at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. The enslaved men, women, and children were now free. Before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it was illegal to teach enslaved people how to read and write. After enslavement ended, the Freedman’s Bureau began opening schools to teach African Americans. One such school was the Fisk Free Colored School, which opened in 1866. It is now known as Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The school was built from former Union Army hospital barracks left over at the end of the war. Recently freed Black people moved to cities looking for a fresh start. The school offered them the chance to get an education, but many people could not afford to pay. By 1871, the school was running out of money. A music teacher named George Leonard White came up with a plan to help raise money for the school. He formed a singing group with five female and four male students. The plan was for them to travel across the country and perform to raise money for the school. On October 6, 1871, they left Fisk University to start their tour of the Northeast.
Performance Program from Tremont Temple, New York in 1873, Tennessee State Museum Collection, 86.46.4
At first, the singing group performed in small towns at churches, theaters, and music halls. They sang popular songs at first but added traditional African American spirituals as they grew in popularity. In the late 1800s, those spirituals were often called “slave songs” or “plantation melodies.” According to Ella Sheppard (one of the original singers), they never intended to sing those songs in their concerts. Their popularity led Sheppard and White to collect more songs from the community to perform. White named the group the Jubilee Singers for the “year of jubilee” that is mentioned in the Bible. It referred to the year when all those enslaved were to be set free. He wanted it to be a source of inspiration.
By 1872, the Fisk Jubilee Singers grew in popularity and started performing for huge audiences. They earned enough money to pay for their travel and send money back to the school. That year they traveled to Washington, D.C. to sing for the United States President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House!
In 1873, the group grew to 11 members. With their new members, the singers traveled to Europe to perform. There they sang for England’s Prime Minister William Gladstone and Queen Victoria! The money they made during this tour paid for the building at Fisk called Jubilee Hall. It is one of the oldest buildings still standing at Fisk University today. It was the first building in the United States built to educate Black students.
Photo of Jubilee Hall built from 1873-1876, Tennessee State Museum Collection, 10.138
By 1878, the Fisk Jubilee Singers had traveled the world and performed hundreds of concerts. There were even other groups who copied their musical style and sometimes their name. The singers were starting to grow tired. They needed a break. They decided to disband.
Phonograph Record of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1929, Tennessee State Museum Collection, 2008.281.1
However, the story of the Jubilee Singers does not end in 1878. The very next year in 1879, the group was reformed with more members than ever before. They are still performing to this day. Over the years, they have won many awards. Most recently, they were honored by the Americana Music Association with the Legacy of Americana Award. They also won a Grammy Award for the Best Roots Gospel Album called Celebrating Fisk! The 150th Anniversary Album. Their music has stood the test of time. Maybe one day you can see the Fisk Jubilee Singers in concert!
Legacy - Something that is handed down from the past like from an ancestor.
Emancipation Proclamation - A presidential proclamation (order) issued by Abraham Lincoln. He originally issued it on September 22, 1862, and it took effect on January 1, 1863. It declared “that all persons held as slaves "within the rebellious states" are, and henceforward shall be free." However, it did not apply to everyone.
Freedman’s Bureau - Newly freed African Americans were known as Freedmen. The Freedmen’s Bureau was set up by Congress to “provide food, shelter, clothing, medical services, and land to displaced Southerners, including newly freed African Americans”
Barracks - A building or group of buildings usually used during wars for soldiers to sleep in.
Disband - To break up.
Whose idea was it to start the Fisk Jubilee Singers?
How many singers were in the original group?
What is one effect that the Jubilee Singers had on Fisk University in the 1800s? What was one effect they had outside the University?
Why do you think the Jubilee Singers are such an important part of Fisk University’s history today?
To learn more about the origins of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, watch the American Experience episode all about them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_jLGZrUuMI.
Listen to the beautiful music of the Fisk Jubilee Singers as they perform in 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kUfvUDOOxQ.
Jennifer Watts is the Education Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum
Tennessee Social Studies Standard(s)
SSP.01 Gather information from a variety of primary and secondary sources, including printed materials (e.g., literary texts, newspapers, political cartoons, autobiographies, speeches, letters, personal journals), graphic representations (e.g., maps, timelines, charts, artwork), artifacts, and media and technology sources.
SSP.02 Critically examine a primary or secondary source in order to: Summarize significant ideas and relevant information, distinguish between fact and opinion, draw inferences and conclusions, and recognize author’s purpose, point of view, and reliability.
5.44 Explain the development and efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau in helping former slaves begin a new life, including Fisk University. (T.C.A. § 49-6-1028)
AAH.19 Analyze the effects of Reconstruction on the legal, political, social, cultural, educational, and economic life of freedmen.
AAH.20 Assess the successes and failures of Reconstruction as they relate to African Americans.
AAH.25 Describe the progress of African American institutions, such as religion, education, and benevolent organizations, during this era.
AAH.31 Describe the contributions of African Americans to the performing arts during this era (e.g., DeFord Bailey, Duke Ellington, Fisk Jubilee Singers, W.C. Handy, James Weldon Johnson, John Work III).
TN.35 Explain the development and efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau schools, including Fisk University.
“Americana Music Association Names Fisk Jubilee Singers as of the year’s slate of Lifetime Achievement Award Honorees.” Fisk University: Featured, University News and Publications, September 7, 2021. https://www.fisk.edu/featured/americana-music-association-names-fisk-jubilee-singers-as-one-of-this-years-slate-of-lifetime-achievement-award-honorees/. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica & Patricia Bauer. “Fisk Jubilee Singers.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fisk-Jubilee-Singers. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
“Our History.” Fisk Jubilee Singers, 2022. https://fiskjubileesingers.org/about-the-singers/our-history/. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
“The Fisk Jubilee Singers Album, Clebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album), Wins GRAMMY Award in Best Roots Gospel Album Category.” Fisk University: Featured, University News and Publications, March 14, 2021. https://www.fisk.edu/featured/the-fisk-jubilee-singers-album-celebrating-fisk-the-150th-anniversary-album-wins-grammy-award-in-best-roots-gospel-album-category/. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
Ward, Andrew S. “They Brought the Jubilee.” American Heritage, Vol. 51, Issue 4. July/August 2000. https://www.americanheritage.com/they-brought-jubilee?page=show. Retrieved June 23, 2022.
“Chapter 1: Jubilee Singers.” Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory. PBS: American Experience, November 19, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_jLGZrUuMI.
“Fisk Jubilee Singers Perform Wade in the Water.” Barbershop Harmony Society, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kUfvUDOOxQ.