Rarely are there articles that focus on the individual members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, when there is one even on the group. In future columns we will place each one in the spotlight beginning this week with Mary Eliza Walker Crump.
“My mother belonged to Wesley Greenfield and my father to John W. Walker of Nashville,” Mary wrote in a publication in 1873. She was 16 at that time, having been born in slavery in 1857 in Tennessee. “There were eight children,—two boys and six girls,” she further noted and chronicled in Gustavus D. Pike’s “The Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars,” “I was next to the youngest. My mistress held only two or three slaves besides our family. She finally set my mother free and gave her the three youngest children. After the war my father kept an icehouse and made enough money to buy us a little home; but there was some trouble about the lease, and we lost the house. In 1866 I commenced attending Fisk School [college], and continued there as much of the time as 1 was able till 1870.”
Three years before the article about her parents appeared, she became an original member of the eleven Fisk Jubilee Singers. The group was organized by George L. White, a white missionary and music professor. As promised, we will present profiles on two other original members—Maggie Porter and Ella Sheppard.
The Singers, formed to raise funds for the college, toured widely from 1871 to 1878, and this included ventures abroad in Europe where there was high praise for their renditions of the spiritual and folks songs of Stephen Foster. It wasn’t unusual to find such prominent personalities as Queen Victoria, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain and the famed abolitionist Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.
By 1873, they were well on their way to raising enough money to build Jubilee Hall. Pike, the author who traveled with the Singers, cited this performance at a church in Cincinnati, which to him was typical of their genius. “A vast crowd filled the church to overflowing, and was entertained and benefited by music conducted by ten students from Fisk University, Nashville. The music was strictly devotional, and was preceded by a prayer from the pastor of the church, the Rev. E. Halley, and accompanied by explanatory remarks by him and Professor White. The opening piece was entitled, ‘Children, you’ll be called on to March in the field of battle.’ It was a deep, pathetic incentive to Christian exertion. Next came ‘Broken-hearted, weep no more.’ The hymn which followed was the masterpiece of the evening; rough in language, it was richly melodious, and showed that analogy between the feeling of the slaves at the South and that of the captive Israelites, upon which Mrs. Stowe has dwelt so much in her Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It began with ‘Go down, Moses.’”
When the Singers disbanded in 1878, Mary lived in Chicago and mainly dealt with managing her version of the Jubilee Singers. They were also popular on various musical circuits and invited to sing at civic celebrations from city to city. In 1921, she was among three other original members invited to the fiftieth anniversary celebration.
A year later she mourned the passing of her husband Thomas H. Crump. She died in 1928 in Chicago and Ambrose Caliver, the president of Fisk University, sent a letter to be read at her funeral, saying “Fisk University rejoices in the complete fruition of a life so full of beauty and service. The gradual closing of the ranks of the first Jubilee Singers grieves us beyond measure, but we shall always cherish the memory of those who helped to make Fisk possible.” In 1978, fifty years after she died, Eliza Walker and the other original members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers were granted posthumous honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Fisk University.