The Road Back Home: The Exploitation and Emancipation of The Fisk Jubilee Singers
“In later life, Maggie Porter would confess she was disappointed
at first with the ruler of the largest empire in the history of the
world. ‘Poor ignorant me!’ Porter exclaimed. ‘I received the
greatest disappointment of my life. The Queen wore no crown,
no robes of state. She was like many English ladies I had seen
in her widow’s cap and weeds. But it was the Queen in flesh and
blood.’ Victoria sat quietly and expectantly as the singers
assembled before her.” (Ward 213)
The fiercely independent Maggie Porter was born a slave in 1853. A mere twenty years later her performance, along with the rest of the Fisk Jubilee singers, in London before Queen Victoria of England would be something of a coronation for this band of African-Americans touring the English country side. “Queen Victoria’s blessing opened nearly every door in her kingdom…” (Ward 215) But not only would England fall to the spiritual charms of the slave songs; to a degree Europe would soon be enraptured with the sounds. However, after England there would still be hurdles and obstacles because of racial divide. Even the journey from humble origins at the Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee was wrought with conflict and seemingly unendurable hardships. Never were doors easily opened for the Fisk Jubilee singers, and even some of their most stringent white allies took advantage of the desperate situation that these singers found themselves in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Yet, this remarkable story can be looked at as the first step in acceptance of African-American culture, especially from a musical standpoint. What would ensue in the subsequent decades would be the emergence of the blues and jazz rising up from the south to invade northern cities, and later would transform into rock and roll in post-World War II United States. To put it bluntly, if it wasn’t for the accessibility of the spirituals for white audiences at home and abroad, jazz and the blues most likely would not have been as accessible, not to mention the direct influence on the Jazz and Blues performers themselves. This long arm of influence of the Jubilee singers was a double edged sword. Though eventually a success, the singers were forced to tour without much pay and under harsh conditions. In a way, this was another form of slavery, replacing chains for chains yet what came of this hardship was a musical legacy that is unrivalled in the annals of American music. But one cannot discuss legacy without first dissecting the origins of a movement.
“Fisk University…was founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association (AMA), which had ties to the Congregational Church, to provide badly needed education for newly freed slaves.” (Brooks 279) These millions of free men, women, and children were homeless and without any money, nor means to achieve any stature. They were uneducated and unprepared for a life left to their own devices. Much debate was made as what to do with this “problem.” The question for some was how to integrate them into society. In the words of the author J.B.T. Marsh writing in 1881, the AMA was founded with the intent and purpose of abolishing slavery, educating slaves, and converting them to Christianity. Then when the war ended “…this task of giving more than four millions of freedmen a Christian education was suddenly laid upon the (AMA), its origin, its associations, and its past labors, all pointed to it as providentially trained up for the occasion.” (Marsh 6) Whether this opportunity which was seized by this organization was divinely motivated is up for debate. One thing that is clear, once the doors of the school opened on January 9, 1866, there was an “abundance of students but (the school) suffered a severe shortage of funds.” (Brooks 279-280) Once opportunity opened up, given the chance to make through the doors of the originally named Fisk Free Colored School, the newly emancipated were eager and willing to learn and participate. With infrastructure and support already in place, the AMA were an obvious organization to step into the power vacuum of influence. But this moral support from the northern abolitionist Christian community didn’t extend to the monetary kind. In order to keep the university afloat something had to be done.
Universities using their student body to accrue funds for various purposes is not something that has gone out of fashion even in today’s America. “In 2010, the collective revenue of the 15 highest-grossing college football programs in the United States was more than $1 billion. In many schools, the revenues generated by successful football and basketball programs fund the entire athletic department…These revenues come largely from broadcast rights, ticket sales and merchandising.” (finance.zacks.com, NP) According to a study done by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2007, 40% of all collegiate football players were African-American. This number is significantly higher for the major programs in universities such as the University of Alabama, University of Texas, and University of Tennessee, among others. Of course some of these students receive full scholarships, but for the University the expense of tuition is but peanuts compared to the booty reaped upon the financial return garnered from the schools investment in their players. In some ways, these schools are following the blueprint laid out by Fisk University, albeit with a different approach. Where today the money is made by sports, with Fisk their idea was to use music of the former slaves. This was a much more risky endeavor as we will soon discover.
“In 1867, George L. White became the treasurer (of Fisk University)…After a time, White began gathering a group of students together in his home…He was inspired by their voices and the dire straits of the college, so he began arranging occasional fund-raising concerts for the choir.” (Lloyd 11) White had the reputation of a tireless man driven by faith and goodwill. By all accounts, his initial conviction was to upkeep the integrity of the school. For the members of the choir, these performances were a way to pay their dues. But by 1871, this wasn’t enough. According Andrew Ward, a leading voice on the history of the Jubilee singers, White spent much of his earnings putting back into the University. “He fended of creditors and even dug into his own savings to keep the school from sinking.” (Ward 82) Times were most definitely tough and White leaned on his religion and his business acumen to lead him to the next phase of this process.
At this time it must be noted and dissected the role of white people which played in helping some African-Americans attain some semblance of integration in the aftermath of the War. Perhaps, integration is a word best saved for the civil rights movement nearly a century later. It is true that the fates of these freed slaves depended on the nature and manner of which white people they were dealing with. Men like White took a leading role in this process of education. Of course the ambitions of certain forms of Christianity give the green light to followers to try and convert the “barbarous”. This tactic has brought missionaries to places all around the globe to places deemed “uncivilized”, in their eyes. This brought the AMA to places as far flung as “Jamaica and West Africa” and even the slaveholding south. (Marsh 6) This eventually led to the creation of Fisk and thus the Jubilee singers and their subsequent journey of spreading word of God through their songs. But what truly emerges out of these sojourns to spread the gospel of the Jubilee singers is that while many whites initially saw the singers as a singular unit, with each member nearly indistinguishable from next, the stories and journals left behind about the individual singers reveal the conflicting aspects of such a harrowing and complex chapter in American history. However, with credit to White, slowly the image of African-Americans changed because of these tours.
These tours in itself were ambitious and daring. First, because White’s goal was to raise $20,000 for the university. It was also daring because many people wondered who would want to see black entertainers performing outside of their normal stereotype. “…at the time the American public viewed black entertainers almost as exclusively as minstrels and comedians. Never had a serious attempt been made to present an ensemble (such as this) in a ‘high-class’ setting.” (Brooks 280). To paraphrase Thomas Lloyd of The Choral Journal, the Jubilee singers were a counter to that ever popular stereotype, despite the fact that the legacy of minstrelry continued deep into the latter half-of the 19th century. (Lloyd 12) Truly, vestiges of that legacy lasted long into the 20th century. Anybody who has seen Gone with the Wind can attest to Butterfly McQueen’s character Prissy or even the character of Pork in the same movie. These depictions harken back to the perceptions of even some of the most liberal abolitionists of the previous 100 years in regards to the image of the African-American, such as the members of the Beecher family of the mid-19th century.
This “high-class” setting was the target during the commencement of the first domestic tour in 1871 for the raising of funds in order to keep the University running. But the reception early on was mediocre at best. As written by Ward, “George White’s plan was to lead his singers up along the old Underground Railway, performing in the churches and homes of the former abolitionists who had helped spirit runaway slaves up to Canada.” (Ward 128) During this trip, White had allegedly booked first-class tickets for the choir, but they were continually denied passage and forced to ride in the caboose of the train. This was a harsh fact of post-Civil War America. A sobering irony is that even in the places where the people fought for the freedom of the slaves, there was still trouble accepting them as equals. (Ward 128) Or course we know how that problem persists even today. One need look no further than any random headline in the local newspaper. Imagine in the 1870’s how difficult the transition of acceptance must have been for even the most level headed White abolitionist confronted with his accomplishment.Yet slowly but surely a zeitgeist was sweeping through the northeast. After the four domestic tours of 1871 and 1872, over 150,000 dollars were raised for the university. They came back to Nashville as the toast of the town amongst the white elite. But how were the day to day lives of the singers changed after these first few years of hard work and stress from travelling in poor conditions? Before this question could be answered, one thing cannot be disputed: acclaim for the Jubilee singers was at a fever pitch and offers from all over the newly restored Union were pouring in demanding the talents of his troupe. (Lloyd 13)
After the first tour overseas to Great Britain, they returned to the States weary and sick, but also elated with their occupation in May of 1874. Already mentioned before was the words of Ms. Potter and her recollection of Queen Victoria on that successful trip, but there must be mentioned, respectively, the singers Ella Sheppard and Robert L. Loudin. Not to do disservice to the other singers, but the exploits of these three high-profile performers will shine a light on the life of some the lesser known members. Over the next few years, Robert Loudin, born a free man though a victim of brutal racism, became an unofficial spokesperson for the Jubilee singers. He was an ambitious and outspoken baritone singer. He fought for the right of the singers for rest and compensation. In 1884, he would travel the work as the undisputed leader of the Jubilee singers. To be an African-American man commanding such a group was truly an achievement. He had other pursuits as well. The Jubilee singers was just a platform for political and business ambitions. Tireless and driven, his story was one that is inspirational and worthy of note. (pbs.org) Sheppard, born into slavery, was another driven member who would tour ceaselessly with the group for 1871-1878 run, when the original troupe was retired. Her only break was during a bout of infection that nearly left her dead. She is a testament to strength of will but is also an example of slave-driver like mentality that White and leaders of the University would inflict on the troupe. However, Sheppard was unrepentantly loyal to White. (pbs.org) Even White would suffer from the death of his wife and from tuberculosis and eventually give up control of the troupe altogether. These people are examples of the ego and drive of artistic endeavors when pursuits of merit are involved. But there were other reasons driving the group. The tour of Great Britain was very lucrative and most of this went toward building the great Jubilee Hall in Nashville. (Marsh 46)
In the words of W.E.B. DuBois, “to me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.” (DuBois 179) An alumni of Fisk, DuBois was truly inspired by the reach and achievements of the Jubilee singers. He speaks to the legacy of slavery and the fruits that are reaped when those seeds are sown in the soil. Jubilee Hall was complete in 1876 and was a testament to that which had come into fruition. The songs equal the souls of the black folks from slavery to seeds of emancipation. This is their history and with the construction of Jubilee Hall they had a concrete representation of where they came from and where they were going. Yet this was another institution built on the backs of poor and the destitute. While the context may be different, the exhaustion and exploitation have eerily similar results to that exploitative slave mentality but success would dissipate that down the road and the sacrifice these singers made for the troupe far outweighed the pitfalls of exploitation. To put it simply, the experience of the singers, especially going abroad, was eye-opening and helped to open up their consciousness, as travelling usually does. In the words of Frederick Loudin upon seeing London, “it seemed to me I had always been walking around blind before. We were astonished to find such freedom…such an entire absence of race prejudice…I gradually realized that I could do what anybody else could do…” (Ward 293) This was during their third tour in 1875. But his candy-colored observations may have been due to the fact that the path was paved for him with the success of earlier tours and that also he was part of a celebrated group but however, compared to the conditions in the south at the time, it would be difficult to agree with his enthusiasm. Back home, unfortunately, was another matter altogether.
The 1870’s was a tumultuous time for the conditions of blacks in the southern American states while they became ever so popular overseas. “As the Jubilees proceeded from strength to strength, letters from friends and family followed after them, reporting on the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan: teachers beaten and even killed, country school houses burned to the ground, and federal authorities in retreat…” (Ward 251) From the standpoint of a confederate sympathizer, these were natural reactions toward the emergence of the African-American. They figured they had the ideologies of the northern industrialist forced upon them, and while the Jubilee singers came back home, they would also tour incessantly, driving all of its members to exhaustion. Also, it is not as if abroad there were not instances of racism, despite the proclamations of Loudin.
In 1877, during one of their last tours before disbanding and breaking up into other groups under the same name, they paid a visit to the Netherlands. According to an article written at the time in the Leeuwarder Courant “The Netherlands is to be blamed for the slaves because in 1620 the first slaves disembarked from a Dutch boat on the shores of Virginia.” (Metzelaar 79) This statement reveals the deep-seated guilt from the legacy of slavery on the psyche of the Dutch. Suddenly, the Dutch were confronted with something they tried to forget, and a discourse about race became a conversational topic. But while some commentators at the time focussed on the abhorrent history and complicity of slavery of the Dutch, other people in the Netherlands had mixed reactions to a travelling troupe with the music taking a back seat to the to the spectacle that was the Jubilee singers themselves. “Clearly it was not only their singing that attracted such large audiences; many people in the Netherlands were just eager to see a people with a darker skin.” (Metzelaar 79) According to Metzelaar, it was noted that one critic was disappointed that the singers were not black enough. This connection to Dutch hostility towards blacks extends toward the Dutch Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Metzelaar even invites further review on the connection between this group and Dutch tensions in the homeland. (Metzelaar 79) But the Netherlands is only a small case study of the galvanizing effect that the Jubilee singers had.
Obviously, racism is inescapable whether it is from ignorance or from hatred. Fetishism and curiosity was part of the draw in the Netherlands and other places they would visit, such as Germany and Switzerland. It is interesting how a group of former slaves singing Negro spirituals and Christian hymns would act as a mirror upon which every population they were visiting would look and see a reflection of their racist past. At home they were equally revered and reviled depending on which train station they rolled into. Abroad came even more diverse reactions but what cannot be disputed is that the Jubilee singers opened the to door black entertainment. You can say, for white people, they softened the blow. They also spawned other imitation “jubilee” groups that would tour around and become somewhat successful. They would even use the name “Fisk” but “unfortunately the musical standards of some of these hastily contrived commercial groups were low.” (Brooks 282) It is interesting to learn, however, that even some imposters were successful and made money for the organizers who happened to be mostly white. This is a testament to the popularity of the music at the time.
This popularity, like all popularities, are complex and incorporate many different variables of different societies. This can only reveal that societies in general are not homogenous entities, but consist of dynamic components constantly changing and in flux. No better example than the Jubilee singers to expose this sociological truth. Perhaps the drudgery of never-ending, ill-suited travel and constant performing may have done irreparable harm to the health of the singers and to their leader George White. Even the fact that the Spirituals themselves are an oral history exploited by white evangelicals for monetary purposes has been a blemish on the record of the Jubilee singers. Some critics have responded that White made these songs palatable for white consumption and that in turn created a new stereotype. Based on the readings from Andrew Ward’s Dark Midnight When I Rise, there were seldom performances directed towards impoverished African-Americans. But dare one say that these same critics probably watch NCAA football on Saturdays or share in some other form of exploitation in their lives. In this American system, exploitation is what our foundation is made of with entertainment and garnering capital some of the pillar virtues. Despite monetary capital, what cultural capital was earned from the Fisk Jubilee singers? First one needs to realize that history can always be criticized if one allows it to exist in a vacuum. But in that instance, progress would fail to arise because there would be no context of the greater framework in which events reside. This in turn would stifle meaningful discourse. With that in mind it seems obvious what benefits came from the Fisk Jubilee singers without detracting from the valid critics. George White’s vision came with a price but what was bought is still felt today. The Jubilee singers made black music relevant outside of the realm of minstrelry. The next generations of music benefitted as well, with the blues and jazz giving birth to rock and roll. These connections are so culturally relevant that American popular culture has become one of the dominant cultures around the world, with the African-American musical influence one of the leading movements. According to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, the blues and early Rock and Roll from the likes of Chuck Berry were major contributors to his passion to be a musician. And what inspired the blues? Spirituals! Furthermore, the Jubilee singers exported the African-American back over the Atlantic, thus symbolically reversing slavery. This has a psychological effect that has exponential ramifications we are still evaluating as a society. Finally, the impact and, perhaps more important, is the experiences of the Jubilee singers themselves, the stories of Porter, Sheppard, and Loudin, not to mention countless others. Their experiences put them face to face with the ancestors of their captors and began the road to reconciliation.
“So their songs conquered till they sang across the land and across the sea, before Queen and Kaiser, in Scotland and Ireland, Holland and Switzerland. Seven years they sang, and brought back a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to found Fisk University.” (DuBois 179)
Brooks, Tim. “Might Take One Disc of This Trash as a Novelty”: Early Recordings by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Popularization of “Negro Folk Music.” American Music 18.3 (2000): 278-316. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014
“College Sports Are Still Largely Segregated by Race.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education No. 37 (2002): 63-64. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. N.p.: Echo Library, 2011. Web.
Lloyd, Thomas. “”Shout All Over God’s Heaven!” How the African-American Spiritual Has Maintained Its Integrity in the Face of Social and Musical Challenges.” The Choral Journal 45.1 (2004): 9-25. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers, with Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1886. Print.
Metzelaar, Helen. “Front Matter.” Tijdschrift Van De Koninklijke Vereniging Voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis Deel 55.1 (2005): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
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Richards, Keith, and James Fox. Keith Richards. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010. Print.
Ward, Andrew. Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. New York: Amistad, 2001. Print.