Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

by Kiersti Giron

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1882. By Prints & Photographs Department, MSRC - Deep Roots Magazine, Public Domain,

Have you heard the songs “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” or “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees”? Most Americans have, whatever our ethnic or faith background. These songs are all traditional African-American “spirituals,” but many white people didn't used to consider them a valid musical genre at all, and in fact this music was almost completely unknown outside of the former slave community. We know these beautiful songs today in large part thanks to a remarkable group of young people known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

In 1865, just after the end of the American Civil War, millions of recently freed slaves had been thrust into a new life—but not an easy one. They were desperately hungry for education, as even reading and writing had so long been denied them, and flocked to the new schools set up for the “freedmen.” One such school was Fisk School in Nashville, Tennessee, first held in an abandoned Union Army camp and incorporated in 1867 as Fisk University, still an important institution today. The school opened its doors in January, 1866, and in its first year the average DAILY attendance numbered about one thousand students! The 1880 book The Story of the Jubilee Singers recalls how grandfathers studied side by side with their grandchildren, and elderly women sometimes mastered the alphabet in less than a week. Before long, however, other elementary schools opened and allowed Fisk University to focus more on its original goal, emphasizing higher education.

Jubilee Hall at Fisk University, built by funds raised by the original Jubilee Singers.
By Editor - Lawson Andrew Scruggs -, Public Domain

By 1871, though, the school was in dire financial straits, in danger of closing its doors. Recently enslaved families struggled to pay the tuition for their children, and all freedmen’s schools faced immense prejudice and opposition in the South. At one point, the students and faculty actually dug up handcuffs and chains from a former slave pen and sold them as scrap iron to raise money for the school.

But George L. White, the school’s treasurer and music professor, had an idea. He had been blown away by the quality of his students’ formerly untrained voices and loved helping them refine their musical abilities. Though they worked together on such choral numbers as the cantata Esther, White had been deeply touched by the “cabin songs” the students had grown up singing, songs formerly unknown outside of slave communities and cotton fields. White decided these young people's voices—and their music—needed to be shared with the world. And perhaps, even held the key to saving the school.

The original nine Jubilee Singers, 1871. By Black, James Wallace, 1825-1896, photographer;
American Missionary Association. - Library of CongressCatalog: Public Domain.

Taking with them the entire contents of the Fisk treasury, on October 6, 1871, nine young men and women—all students at Fisk, several still in their teens, and all but two former slaves—set off with Mr. White and the ambitious goal of raising $20,000 for their school. The students numbered four young men and five young women: Minnie Tate, Greene Evans, Isaac Dickerson, Jennie Jackson, Maggie Porter, Ella Sheppard, Thomas Rutling, Benjamin Holmes, and Eliza Walker. At first, the singers often met with prejudice and outright hostility, as hotels frequently refused to let them stay because of their color. Even when welcomed, collections at their performances remained meager. They raised about $50 at a concert in Cincinnati, but that same weekend occurred the devastation of the great Chicago Fire. The singers decided to donate the entire proceeds of their first true paid concert to the relief efforts for fire victims.

Through prejudice and hardship, usually depending on the slim proceeds from one concert to fund their food and lodging for the next day, this little vocal group persevered. When they reached Columbus, Ohio, the singers were physically and emotionally drained. In hopes of lifting everyone’s spirits, Mr. White decided to name them the Jubilee Singers, taken from the year of Jubilee and freedom in the book of Leviticus. 
Ella Shepherd, Pianist and Assistant Director of the original Jubilee Singers.
By Unknown - Fisk University Library, Special Collections, Public Domain,

Gradually, that promise of hope began to be fulfilled. When the Jubilee Singers performed for the congregation of Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), he urged his wealthy parishioners to dig deep and give generously, and they did so. A corner had been turned, and concerts of the Jubilee Singers began to sell out. Prejudices gradually lowered, as audiences’ hearts were won both by the beautiful voices of the students and the uniquely moving power of their songs. Soon they were able to pay their way and start sending money back to Fisk. As the popularity of their music rose, they even sold sheet music for their songs at the concerts. In 1872, the Jubilee Singers sang at the White House at the invitation of President Grant, and in 1873, they embarked on a European tour, performing for royalty and raising enough funds to build Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building at Fisk University. During this tour, the singers sang for Queen Victoria, who commissioned a large portrait of the group that still hangs in Jubilee Hall.

Sheet Music for "Come, Let Us All Go Down," By Jubilee Singers
(Emory University, Robert W. Woodruff Library) - The story of the Jubilee Singers
 with their songs, published 1880. Available on Internet Archive, Public Domain

While the exhausted group disbanded in 1878, in 1879 a new version of the Jubilee Singers re-formed, and this remarkable choral ensemble still continues on today. The Jubilee Singers retains its original focus on traditional African American spirituals and acapella music and continues to perform and receive acclaim around the world. But each year, on October 6, “Jubilee Day”—the anniversary of that first little group of musical students setting off on their tour by faith—the present-day Jubilee Singers make a pilgrimage to the burial sites of the original singers and sing the old songs in honor of those faithful nine.
2012 - 2013 Fisk Jubilee Singers Ensemble, By Bill Steber
- Photosubmissions 2013111910012728, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Have you ever heard of the Fisk Jubilee Singers? What touched or surprised you most about their story? Please comment and share! 

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won the 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as connecting with readers at She lives in California with her husband, Anthony, their two kitties, and their baby boy.


  1. I have heard of this group, from the wonderful book To Wager Her Heart by Tamera Alexander. Thank you for sharing about this amazing group of young people!

    1. Yes--I loved To Wager Her Heart, and while I'd heard of the Jubilee Singers before, it was Tamera Alexander's book that really introduced me to them! As I've been researching and learning more, I kept learning things (and characters) mentioned in that book. Wonderful how we can learn history through fiction, isn't it? Thanks so much for stopping and sharing, Linda!

  2. I had not heard of them. I love this type of music; so uplifting. I'll have to look them up. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Connie! I only recently really learned of the Jubilee Singers either; I wish they were more well known. I've been showing a documentary about them to my high school students this month to try and spread the word. Thanks so much for reading--blessings!

  3. Love this! I went to Youtube and listened to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" recorded in 1909. Wow!

    And also "Wade in the Water" recorded in 2019. Both were beautiful, esp. Wade in the Water. Thanks for sharing!

    1. So awesome that you followed up on Youtube, Pam! Isn't it amazing that there is such an early recording of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"? And that the music continues today. Thanks so much for investing and sharing--blessings!

  4. I had not heart of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Thank you for sharing about them. I love those old hymns and sing them often. I learned them as a young child.

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing, Melissa! Blessings to you, and I love that you carry these songs in your heart. We have much to be grateful for from the Jubilee Singers.

  5. Great story, Kiersti! I had not heard of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.Thanks for sharing it. I have always enjoyed African-American spirituals. They come out difficult times but always seem to have in them the hope of heaven and God's over-abiding care. John Koedyker

    1. Thank you so much for reading and sharing, John! I agree, this music has so much power and eternal hope, amazing considering the circumstances--but such is God.