Academic journal article Church History

"Tell Them We Are Singing for Jesus:" the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers and Christian Reconstruction, 1871-1878

Academic journal article Church History

"Tell Them We Are Singing for Jesus:" the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers and Christian Reconstruction, 1871-1878

Article excerpt

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The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the first African-American musical performers to achieve national and international fame. Their moving performances of traditional Negro spirituals drew acclaim from American and British audiences between 1871 and 1878, followed by a successful world tour from 1884 to 1890. During this remarkable twenty-year run they played to packed houses, enthralled music critics everywhere, collaborated in the revival campaigns of Dwight Moody and Charles Spurgeon, and enjoyed the hospitality of royals and nobles on three continents.

The story of how a double handful of student singers, born in slavery, some of them still teenagers, could conquer the Victorian musical and religious worlds is the stuff of legend, but the Singers' status as the prime historical symbol of Negro uplift after the Civil War has also tended to preempt critical scholarship on the ensemble's origins, mission, leadership, operations, and influence. Toni P. Anderson has mined the Singers' papers and correspondence, newspaper accounts at the Fisk University archives, local history collections, and the records of the American Missionary Association (AMA) to provide an intimate and readable account that at last places their achievement in a critical historical perspective.

Anderson's principal contribution is to place Fisk University and the Jubilee Singers in the context of what she calls "Christian Reconstruction," the AMA's militant program of Evangelical religion, liberal education, and acculturation to Victorian values and norms designed to produce proper leaders for the four million newly freed slaves. Immediately after the war, the Congregationalist-led AMA undertook heroic efforts to create Christian colleges in the South to serve the Freedmen. Fisk University in Nashville (1866) was designed by its leaders Adam Spence and Erastus Cravath to be a prime embodiment of this Christian Reconstruction strategy.

The founder of the Jubilee Singers was a Fisk faculty member named George Leonard White, who began informal music classes on campus, developed a remarkably talented vocal band of about a dozen student singers, and proposed in 1870 to lead them on a concert tour of Northern cities in order to raise money for the financially desperate school. One of the strongest features of Anderson's account is her description of the first crucial months of the initial 1871 tour, as the young singers struggled to perform their repertory of popular ballads, patriotic songs, and spirituals.

After a concert at Oberlin, however, White gained the support of Rev. Thomas K. Beecher of Elmira, New York. Thomas's enthusiastic endorsement convinced his brother Henry Ward Beecher to sponsor the Singers in December 1871 at his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, where White's redesigned program of spirituals was a smash hit. A six-week run of sold-out bookings in New York followed, then a triumphant tour of New England. The critics raved, donations poured in to save Fisk University, and almost overnight the Jubilee Singers became a national phenomenon. Anderson tells this story well through the eyes of the Singers, White, Cravath, Spence, and the Beechers, giving it a multidimensionality that redresses the sense of inevitability resident in more popular accounts.

Anderson supplements this account by carefully examining the financial and administrative dimensions of the Jubilee Singers enterprise. White fully understood the need for advertising to introduce the Singers to the Evangelical public, and he developed a successful strategy of marketing through advance-men. …

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