Music and Slavery

Who introduced spirituals to the world?

In February of 1882 the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who introduced the spiritual to the world as an American art form, became the first black choir to perform at the White House. Their rendition of “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” moved President Chester Arthur to tears. The night before their performance, the singers were denied lodging in every hotel in the district. On October 6, 1871, the nine men and women singers—all former slaves or freedmen—set out on their first tour to raise money to save fledgling Fisk University, located in Nashville, Tennessee. Under the direction of George Leonard White, their first tour took them to Ohio. While there, they assumed the name Jubilee Singers, after the Year of the Jubilee in the Old Testament. Although they were hungry and cold, they donated their first purse of less than fifty dollars to the Chicago Relief Fund to aid victims of the great Chicago fire. After that, they traveled widely, singing in the Boston Coliseum and in churches, and electrified audiences wherever they performed. They sang the songs of their ancestors—slave songs and spirituals. Following a successful performance in New England, President Ulysses Grant invited them to sing at the White House. The singers made their first tour of England in 1873–1874, where they sang before royalty and in cathedrals and palaces. Queen Victoria was so impressed with them that she commissioned her court painter, George Edmund Havel, to paint a portrait of the group that now totaled eleven members. His life-sized rendition now hangs in Fisk’s Jubilee Hall, the residence hall that the school erected in 1875 from funds that the singers earned while on tour. The singers toured Europe in 1875 and continued to sing throughout the United States, electrifying audiences with their moving rendition of slave songs and spirituals. In November 2000 the then-current singers were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. President George W. Bush awarded the singers the National Medal of the Arts in 2008.

Hampton Institute, as the school was called earlier, had singers as well; they, too, sang spirituals as they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, covering England, Holland, France, Germany, Austria, and elsewhere, but this group lacked the international reputation of the Fisk singers.


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