We may have to ask our resident numerologist Lloyd Strayhorn the significance of nine in African-American history. As many of us know, there was the “Little Rock Nine,” who boldly integrated Central High School, and nine was the number of the Scottsboro Boys who were unjustly accused, tried and imprisoned. Less known is that the original Fisk Jubilee Singers were comprised of nine members.

In 1871, five years after Fisk University was opened—notably the first American university to offer a liberal arts education—George L. White, the school’s treasurer and music professor, founded the ensemble of nine and took them on a tour with the express purpose of raising funds for the university. The singers’ first tour began on Oct. 6, and that day has been enshrined as Jubilee Day and celebrated each year to commemorate this historic day, according the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ website.

A classic picture of the group reveals that it was comprised of five women and four men, all of them dressed to the “nines” and ready for the next engagement, many of which, in the beginning, took them to the small towns of America.

The Jubilee Singers were already fully established by the time W.E.B. Du Bois arrived there in 1885. During his three years at the university, the intrepid scholar roamed Nashville’s countryside as a teacher, and he heard some of the “sorrow songs” he reflected on so fondly in his treasured book “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903. According to historian David Levering Lewis in his incomparable study of the great man, Du Bois confessed he heard the authentic sorrow songs that were “unmannered, slurred diction purity which no Jubilee Singers concert could ever capture,” Lewis wrote.

Of course, capturing the raw emotional elements of those often guttural songs were never the intention of the Jubilee Singers, whose mission, along with earning money for their school, was to deliver a more refined version of the African-American experience, though not without losing some of the folksy urgency that was the essence of such songs as “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” or “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel.”

The group also veered clear of the then-current stereotypical minstrelsy, and this may have been why, at the very beginning of their career, audiences were not that excited about their renditions.

One early concert in Cincinnati brought in $50, which was promptly donated to victims of the notorious 1871 fire in Chicago,” the ensemble’s website relates. “When they reached Columbus [Ohio], the next city on the 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.”

It took a while for the singers to gather enough money to take care of their travel and lodging expenses, and this breakthrough occurred simultaneously with their winning over hostile white audiences and critics. Soon, they were no longer met with derision, but with rounds of sustained applause after a concert date.

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.