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Archives: Detail

Spotlight Article
Date: 2012-02-20
Article: The Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American a cappella ensemble deriving from Fisk University, was first established when George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor then, created this nine-member choral ensemble of students and took it on tour to earn money for the university. The group left campus on October 6, 1871. Jubilee Day is celebrated annually on October 6 to commemorate this historic day.
   The first concerts were in small towns. Surprise, curiosity and some hostility were the early audience response to these young black singers who did not perform in the traditional “minstrel fashion.”
   One early concert in Cincinnati brought in $50, which was promptly donated to victims of the notorious 1871 fire in Chicago. When they reached Columbus, the next city on tour, the students were physically and emotionally drained. Mr. White, in a gesture of hope and encouragement named them “The Jubilee Singers,” a Biblical reference to the year of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 25.
   Continued perseverance and beautiful voices began to change attitudes among the predominantly white audiences. Eventually skepticism was replaced by standing ovations and critical praise in reviews. Gradually they earned enough money to cover expenses and send back to Fisk.
   In 1872, they sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston and at the end of the year President Ulysses S. Grant invited them to perform at the White House.
   In 1873, the group grew to eleven members and toured Europe for the first time. They performed "Steal Away to Jesus" and "Go Down, Moses" for Queen Victoria in April. Very impressed with this musical group’s performance, she inquired about their home town and noted that Nashville must be a “musical city” which eventually led to the city earning its nickname-Music City.
   In 1985, the Fisk Jubilee Singers sailed to Europe again, touring from May 1875 to July 1878. This tour raised an estimated $150,000 for the university and the funds were used to construct the school’s first permanent building, Jubilee Hall.
   Today, Jubilee Hall, designated a National Historic Landmark by the US Department of Interior in 1975, is one of the oldest structures on campus. The beautiful Victorian Gothic building houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria during the 1873 tour as a gift from England to Fisk.
   In 2008, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were selected as a recipient of the 2008 National Medal of Arts, the nation's highest honor for artists and patrons of the arts. The award was presented by President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush during a ceremony at the White House.
   Today, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continue the tradition of singing the Negro spirituals around the world allowing the historic singing ensemble to share this rich culture globally while preserving this unique music.