Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: Origins of a Tradition

Education was the key to success for blacks in post-slavery America, but having been denied an education for their whole lives, former slaves needed schools that could take adults from complete illiteracy to college graduation.  Fisk University was one of the first seven universities established toward this goal.  Students were enthusiastic learners:
All their lives, the lash or the auction-block had been the swift penalty for slaves who were caught learning to read. Now that the fetters had fallen from mind as well as body there came an eagerness to learn that was like a consuming fire. The world never saw such a sight before as these schools presented. Families pinched with hunger asked more eagerly for schools than for bread.(p. 6)
Although Northern charities funded these universities, money was needed for building and development.  George L. White, a teacher from New York and Union Army veteran, selected the best singers for additional training and formed a group from these voices.  In 1871 they began touring the U.S. and Europe.

They were at times without the money to buy needed clothing. Yet in less than three years they returned, bringing back with them nearly one hundred thousand dollars. They had been turned away from hotels, and driven out of railway waiting-rooms, because of their colour. But they had been received with honour by the President of the United States, they had sung their slave-songs before the Queen of Great Britain, and they had gathered as invited guests about the breakfast-table of her Prime Minister."
The song on this page was given to the group by Frederick Douglass.  Like many spirituals, songs of freedom, hope, and despair that drew on themes from the Bible that resonated with the experiences of slavery.  Some songs carried additional meaning for people escaping slavery via the underground railroad.  "Signal" songs told escapees when it was safe to travel, which way to go, or what dangers lay ahead.  "Run to Jesus" may have been one of these songs.

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