The Fisk Jubilee Singers Celebrate 150 Years

In 1871, Verdi’s groundbreaking opera Aida had its world premiere in Cairo. October 6th of that same year, a group of formerly enslaved African Americans set out on their first fundraising tour to save the Free Fisk Colored School in Nashville, which had been established by the American Missionary Association in the aftermath of the Civil War. Within three years, this group primarily made up of teenagers would find themselves singing in the royal courts of Europe, eventually singing before Queen Victoria who reportedly stated, “These young people sing so beautifully they must be from the Music City of the United States.”

This group of singers became internationally known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.


The Fisk Jubilee Singers


Queen Victoria commissioned a larger-than-life-sized painting of the group that hangs in Jubilee Hall today. Built from the proceeds from those first concert tours, Jubilee Hall was the first permanent structure built in the United States specifically for the purpose of educating the formerly enslaved. In the painting of eleven young adults, the woman seated at the keyboard is Ella Sheppard, the matriarch and primary vocal coach of the group.


Jubilee Hall
George L. White, the group’s founder and director, had wanted to send these young students out on fundraising tours singing the European classics. When he overheard some of the students singing old plantation folk songs, he asked Ella Sheppard to arrange these songs in four-part harmony to be included on their programs. The students were reluctant to sing these songs. They were usually sung in private, and would provide a deep emotional catharsis. George White would call these songs “Spirituals” in the group’s promotional materials, which they are called to this day.

George L. White
Ella Sheppard had studied piano and composition with a German immigrant while she and her father lived in Ohio after fleeing from the 1856 race riots in Nashville. She was born on Andrew Jackson’s plantation, the Hermitage, just outside of Nashville in 1851. Her father Simon hired himself out as a liveryman and hack driver, which enabled him to earn $1,800 allowing him to pay for his own freedom. Sarah Hannah Sheppard, Ella's mother, was promised that her freedom also could be purchased by Simon, but the slave mistress reneged on the agreement. "Sarah shall never belong to Simon," she reportedly said. "She is mine and she shall die mine. Let Simon get another wife." Fed-up with slave life, Sarah threatened that she'd rather "...take Ella and jump into the river than see her a slave." Legend has it that Ella's mother took her to the riverbank to carry out the threat, but an elderly enslaved woman stopped her, saying, "Don’t do it, Honey! Don’t you see God’s chariot a-comin’ down from Heaven? Let the chariot of the Lord swing low. This child is gonna stand before kings and queens! The Lord would have need of that child." Sarah took the woman's advice, and walked back up the hill to slavery with Ella in her arms. Fearing the loss of the child, the slave mistress allowed Simon Sheppard to purchase his own daughter for $350. When young Ella's mother was sold to a plantation in Mississippi, she stayed with her father in Nashville.

Ella Sheppard
After her father’s death in 1866, Ella returned to Tennessee with her stepmother and half-sister, where she taught music lessons, performed at local functions, and worked as a maid. In 1868, she arrived at the Fisk Free Colored School with six dollars to her name. When George White learned of her musical talent, he pulled her in to assist him with his group of young singers. She eventually became the first African-American faculty member at Fisk.

Ella Sheppard’s arrangements appeared in a best-selling book published by George White called Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers. The book included Sheppard’s arrangement of the Spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that was recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909. It was this melody that was utilized by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák in his “Symphony from the New World.” Composer Harry T. Burleigh introduced Dvořák to this music while he was studying with Dvořák in New York.


In those early years, the group sang for Mark Twain, Maurice Ravel, President Ulysses S. Grant, congressmen, and diplomats. They performed before enthusiastic audiences at preacher Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn and at Steinway Hall in Manhattan. "These singers," according to one newspaper, "are doing a great work for humanity." Later they would sing for Madame Curie, George Bernard Shaw, and King George V.


Decades after Ella Sheppard arrived at Fisk, she was able to purchase a home on the Fisk University campus. She eventually found her mother in Mississippi and brought her back to Nashville to live in her home with her husband and two sons.


This happy ending was only possible because of the success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and their ability to save their beloved school 150 years ago.


Matthew Kennedy directing the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1971


My father, Matthew Kennedy, served as director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1957 to 1986 (intermittently), and was director during their centennial celebration in 1971. That year the group was presented in concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and in New York at Carnegie Hall. Since then the group has been presented in New York City in concert several times, but you wouldn’t know it based on the press coverage, or, rather, lack thereof. I’ve often wondered why the press seemed to be so uninterested in the Fisk Jubilee Singers.


Going back to the story of Ella Sheppard, I knew that her father had purchased her freedom as well as his own, which meant that Sam Sheppard’s hard-won money ended up in the coffers of the Hermitage, and ultimately into Andrew Jackson’s estate. Another member of the original group, Thomas Rutling, told the story of remembering the day when his mother was sold away to another plantation, and the sting of the lash as it cut the skin on his arms while he desperately held on to his mother’s skirts.


The story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is inextricably linked with slavery, and some do not wish to be reminded of this history. But the beauty of these plantation songs made it possible for generations of African Americans to receive a college education at one of this country’s first HBCUs.


Fisk University commemorates the anniversary of the group’s departure on their first tour by celebrating Jubilee Day on October 6th each year. This year the guest speaker was poet and Fisk graduate Nikki Giovanni.


[Source: Fisk University Library Special Collections]

                           

Nina Kennedy is a concert pianist, orchestral conductor, and award-winning filmmaker. She holds a master’s degree from the Juilliard School. Her memoir, Practicing for Love, is a 2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalist.


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