Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fisk Jubilee Singers: Touring the U.S. (Ohio)

The select group of talented singers from Fisk University started touring in the Fall of 1871.  Their venues consisted of churches where they sang "praise meetings," rented music venues, and university concert halls.  The group toured at first without a real name, sometimes being advertised as "a band of negro minstrels who call themselves Coloured Christian Singers." Money coming in barely paid the group's expenses, so Mr. White decided on the name "The Jubilee Singers" in reference to the "year of jubilee" which slaves looked forward to as their time for emancipation.

"Way Over Jordan" is one of the "signal songs" that could be understood two ways. The literal meaning references the Israelites' travels under the leadership of Moses in the book of Exodus.  For the Israelites, crossing the Jordan represented the end of their travels back toward Israel and freedom.  Likewise, for escaping slaves, the Ohio River was the boundary between slavery and freedom and the end of a long journey for many.  Songs signaled to escapees in hiding when it was safe to cross or when "Satan" was on the loose.  A slave in hiding who heard this song would know that it was safe to cross the Ohio River to safety.

So it's fitting that their first tour began with several dates in Ohio.

But although people of the northern United States included dedicated abolitionists, Union soldiers, and people who risked their lives hiding escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad, not everyone in the North was so welcoming. In Chillicothe, Ohio, the singers realized that the trip would not be just a fund-raiser for their newly-founded school, but also a mission to break down prejudice.

Here at Chillicothe they met with an indignity which was often repeated in the next year's experience.  Applying at one of the principal hotels for entertainment, they were refused admittance because of their colour.  Treated in the same way at a second, they only secured shelter at a third by the landlord's giving up his own bedroom to them to use as a parlour, and furnishing them their meals before the usual hour, that his other guests might not leave the house.
  Within a few years, their reception had changed: 
People who would not sit in the same church-pew as a negro, under the magic of their song were able to get new light on questions of social equality.
After singing in Cincinnati, Chillicothe, Columbus, Akron, Oberlin, Cleveland, and Zanesville, they moved Eastward to continue their mission.

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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