Jubilee Day 2019

Jubilee Day at Fisk University is a time of most sacred remembrance of October 6, 1871, when a chorus of nine fearful but inspired, young men and women began their first tour in a desperate attempt to raise funds for their school. Under the aegis of George L. White, whose abiding spirit of mission they shared, they traveled as the Jubilee Singers, after the Old Testament’s Year of Jubilee marking the deliverance of the Jews who, like all but two of themselves, had been in bondage. Though hungry and cold, the Singers donated the small purse of less than fifty dollars from their first paid concert to the Chicago Relief Fund to aid the victims of the great Chicago fire. Selfless, courageously fighting the scoffers who regarded them as a minstrel act, the Singers found a friend and patron at Brooklyn in Henry Ward Beecher, whose endorsement was an open sesame to the churches of the East. They electrified an audience of thousands at the Boston Coliseum, where Johann Strauss threw his hat in the air in happy excitement. After that, they found their dream of financial success come true in New England, earning $40,000 and an invitation to sing at the White House for President Grant by winter’s end. A European triumph followed. During the first tour of England in 1973-74, Havel, artist in the Court of Queen Victoria, painted a portrait of the celebrated singers (Men, left to right: Benjamin M. Holmes, Isaac P. Dickerson, Thomas Rutling, Edmund Watkins; women, left to right: Mabel Lewis, Minnie Tate, Ella Sheppard, Jennie Jackson, Maggie Porter, and Georgia Gordon). These eleven singers gave command performances before Queen Victoria and other crowned heads of Europe, introducing to them and to the world the Spiritual, the truly American Folksong, and establishing the tradition of high regard for music and song at Fisk. – all this in the same decade when the struggling Fisk school, named for General Clinton B. Fisk of the Freedman’s Bureau, had bought spellers and Bibles with money from the sale of fetters and handcuffs from an abandoned slave pit. From these concerts Jubilee Hall was built in 1875, a structure sometimes lovingly called “frozen music,” a memorial to the songs that were its building.
With recall of such things past – a history of struggle to the mark indignity, individualism and the ideal of the cultivated man, Fisk honors the Jubilee singers, their mission and their songs, in grateful appreciation for a lasting contribution to the University and to the American cultural heritage.
Author: L.M. Collins, Ph.D.