This ensemble is singing a tale of Black history!
Fisk University, one of the oldest universities in Nashville, TN, is known for many accomplishments. This year alone they welcomed their record breaking freshman class and became the first HBCU to have an intercollegiate women's artistic gymnastics program!
No stranger to Black excellence, they started one of the earliest and most famous Black vocal groups in history. Five years after the University’s founding in 1866, they were met with financial challenges. George L. White, the treasurer and music director at the time, decided he could help keep the doors open by creating a nine-member choral ensemble of students; this ensemble would go on to become known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, named after the Bible’s “Year of Jubilee.” The five women and four men set out on October 6, 1871 - a day which is now recognized as Jubilee Day - to perform at Oberlin College, where they would sing Negro spirituals that had never been sung outside of a Black home or church. They traveled to other Ohio cities, such as Cincinnati and Columbus, to sing in small towns, only earning $50 most days. In the beginning of their touring, some people in their majority-white audiences were interested while others weren’t because they didn't perform in a traditional manner. Between Fisk Jubilee's beautiful voices and excellent music selection, the negativity would soon turn to standing ovations from white and Black audiences alike, and this is when their popularity began to rise.
In 1872, they got the opportunity to perform at large events like the World Peace Festival in Boston and the White House. They also sang for high profile audiences like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, and Johann Strauss. A year later, they gained two more members and were heading out of the country for the first time to tour Europe. There, they made enough money to build Jubilee Hall, the school's first permanent structure built for the education of black students, which is now a national historical landmark and one of the oldest buildings on campus. In the hall, you can find a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria as a gift during their Europe tour.
After many tours, the group disbanded in 1878 but came back in 1879 with new members that continue to tour today. The ensemble has continued to thrive, receiving many honors such as an induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and being awarded the National Medal of Arts. 2021 was the 150th year anniversary of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and it was certainly a year to celebrate! The ensemble received their first GRAMMY, the Rhapsody and Rhythm Award, a Dove Award nomination, along with a $1,500,000 donation to establish a permanent endowment. The endowment “will provide the foundation to support artistic projects, and the recruitment and retention of the next generation of extraordinary talent.” The group still sings their hymns at the school's convocation and finishes the day's ceremonies with a commemoration at the grave sites of the original singers.
Recently, the university endured the loss of Ghana native Paul T. Kwami, who was an Associate Professor of Music at Fisk University and sat as the ensemble's director for over 25 years. He attended Fisk and was a Jubilee singer from 1983 to 1985. When Kwami was brought on board as a full time faculty member in 1994, he became the first African to direct the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the first to hold the Curb-Beaman Chair position. The group was invited to Ghana in 2007 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence. The composer was deeply indebted to the group and said the music touched his spirit.
“I am reminded of my life in Ghana whenever I hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing the Negro spirituals,” said Kwami.
On this day, we celebrate the Fisk Jubilee Singers making history with their first tour. Because of them, we can!
This article was originally posted on BOTWC