Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers Inducted into Gospel Hall of Fame
The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, an institution more than a century old, was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame last month.
It has been said that civil rights pioneer and author Dr. W.E.B. DuBois called their music a message from slaves to the world, and that Mark Twain once said he would walk seven miles to hear them sing their Negro spirituals.
Celebrity aside, the Jubilee Singers helped keep alive a private university where freed Blacks could pursue an education.
In 1871, the university was in debt and facing closure. The school gave the singers the last $40 it had to tour the United States to raise money for the school. After a few months, the singers had raised $20,000, enough money to bail Fisk out of trouble and to purchase Fort Gillem, the present site of the university near downtown Nashville.
Each year, the university honors that concert tour with a pilgrimage to the gravesites of four of the original singers.
Founder George L. White, Fisk University’s treasurer and music instructor, named the group of nine young Black men and women after the Jewish “year of jubilee,” which marked the deliverance of the Jews from slavery. It was an appropriate name for the singers as seven of the nine had been slaves.
In the beginning, their performances mainly consisted of European classical and popular songs, including slave songs like “Lord, I’m Out Here On Your Word” and “Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord” performed as encores.
The overwhelming response of the White Christian audiences to the encores encouraged the singers to make spirituals the focus of their programs.
From tours of countries like Great Britain, Switzerland, Holland and Germany, the singers raised $150,000. The money financed the building of Fisk’s Jubilee Hall, the South’s first permanent structure for the education of Black students.
The singers remain well-known ambassadors for their school. The group recently returned from a four-day singing tour of California, and has been invited by poet Nikki Giovanni, a Fisk graduate, to perform at
Virginia Tech University, where she is a
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