Or, The First Time Most White Americans Heard African-American Music
In 1866, Fisk University was chartered in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first American college to make a liberal arts education available to “young men and women irrespective of color.”
“It was the period after the American Civil War, and there was such a large question about whether or not the former slaves, the African American, was educatable,” Dr. Reavis Mitchell, professor and chairman of the Fisk history department, said in an interview. “And one of the main challenges after the war was to prove in fact that the African American could meet the challenge of education.”
The need was great. Reverend Gustavus D. Pike was associated with the university since its founding. “For 4,000,000 freed people at the South,” he wrote in 1873, “as yet but one person in every 40,000 is in college; and of these, eighty percent, are in institutions which have been founded in the interests of the colored people by northern benevolence, assisted by the government through the Freedmen’s Bureau.” By 1871, benevolent donations to Fisk had dried up, and the school was nearly bankrupt.
George L. White, the school’s treasurer, music professor and a white missionary, formed a group of nine acapella vocalists, with an idea to tour the country and raise the rather extravagant sum of $20,000. This group became known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and they are with us to this day.
This story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is one of cultural triumph. They brought authentic Black expression to a society too used to its own approximation. By doing so, they built the foundation for the next century of popular music. Through dignity and perseverance, the Jubilee Singers became exemplars of the idea that equality was not only possible, but necessary. In addition, they raised enormous amounts of money, guaranteeing a legacy of education and accomplishment.
Pike accompanied the group on its first tour, later memorializing his account two years later in The Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars. He included first person biographies of some of the original members, most of whom were born into slavery.