Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: New England

New England in the late nineteenth century was a busy hub of industry and commerce, and it was also home to some of the most active abolitionists of the pre-war era.  Wealth and empathy combined meant the group would finally be able to send finds and goods back home to Fisk University.  It was during this part of their tour that the first commemorative book of spirituals was published and sold at concerts "by the hundreds."

Manufacturers sympathetic to the university's mission contributed everything from clocks to silverware to a pipe organ to help the start-up university.  In New Haven, esteemed citizens took the singers into their homes when hotels turned them away on account of their skin color.   They never knew whether their first greeting would be positive or negative, but they always had friends ready to defend their rights.   In Bridgeport, Connecticut they stayed in the best rooms of a first-class hotel, but in Newark, New Jersey, they were thrown out onto the street when the proprietor of a tavern discovered their authentic dark skin, not cork-darkened skin of other traveling "minstrels."  This caused his other customers to leave, and the city of Newark's outrage over the event inspired a law granting black children access to public schools.

Concerts throughout Massachussetts and the rest of New England netted them more money and gifts for the university.  They returned to Fisk after six months on the road, bringing with them $20,000 in donations and promises of goods for the new building.  They rode in a first-class railway car as they headed home.

The also made a trip to Washington, D.C., where they sang "Go down, Moses" for the president and vice president.  Note that two of the later stanzas (18 and 22) reference the chains of slavery.

This post is part of a series dedicated to sharing the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers as told in The story of the Jubilee Singers; with their songs by J.B. Marsh, from the Ball State Library Music Collection.

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