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The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Herb Boyd | 11/28/2013, 6 a.m.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers

A year after the inaugural tour, they sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston and then, to top off the year, President Ulysses S. Grant invited them to the White House to perform. By 1872, the group was expanded to 11 members and went across the Atlantic for the group’s first engagements in Europe.

With the success of this tour, they raised enough money to construct Fisk’s first permanent building, which, rightfully, was named Jubilee Hall. Today, the hall is a National Historic Landmark, so designated by the U.S. Department of Interior in 1975. The beautiful Victorian Gothic building houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria during the group’s 1873 tour.

Other images and recordings of the singers can be found on the Internet, particularly on YouTube, where the spinning Columbia and Victor recording labels co-exist with pictures of the group as they sing the spirituals that made them famous.

Today’s Jubilee Singers is a larger group, but the musical tradition and repertory of songs remain unchanged. They have earned a wall full of plaques and awards, including two Grammy nominations, a Dove Award and an induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, as well as the Music City Walk of Fame. 

The website indicates that by a special invitation from the U.S. Department of State, the Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled to Ghana for the first time in 2007, where they performed to celebrate the 50th independence anniversary of Ghanaians. This journey was historic and became known as “A Sacred Journey.”

“One of the venues where the performances took place was on the grounds of Elmina Castle,” the website continues. “In 2008, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were awarded the National Medal of Arts by former President George W. Bush at the White House. Other awards of the ensemble include the Governor’s Award, the Recording Academy Honors and the Heritage Award of the Nashville Music Awards.”

The ensemble’s current director is Paul T. Kwami, himself a former Jubilee Singer, who was born in Ghana. He graduated from Fisk in 1985, continuing his musical studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Since 1994, he has been the director of the singers and a full-time faculty member. Moreover, the group’s trip to Ghana six years ago must have been a special treat for the director.

Activities:

  • Find out more: In the search to gather more information on the Jubilee Singers, one will certainly encounter websites and discographies that insist you stop and listen to the music. Their “sorrow songs” are available online, and to hear them, you don’t have to purchase them, but you may find that hard to resist.
  • Discussion: W.E.B. Du Bois, who attended Fisk, is cited in the article, but it’s important to learn who some of the other notable graduates of this historically Black University were and who might have been members of the group, such as its current director.
  • Place in context: It is readily obvious from the year of its founding that the group was formed during the Reconstruction era. What other developments occurred at this time that helped to ease former slaves into the new day of emancipation?

This Week in Black History

  • Nov. 24, 1870: Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the founder of the Chicago
  • Defender, is born.
  • Nov. 25, 1949: The great dancer and movie star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a resident of Harlem, passes away.
  • Nov. 28, 1929: Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, is born in Detroit.