In last week’s classroom column we featured Mary Eliza Walker Crump, an original female member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. To balance things, we now profile Benjamin M. Holmes.
Our usual process is to search the internet for information about the subject, but this week we will allow Mr. Holmes to speak for himself, thanks to the remarkable work of Gustavus Pike and his book “The Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars” (Lee & Sheppard, 1873).
“I was born,” Holmes began, “on the 25th of September, 1846, or 1848, at Charleston, S. C. My father taught me my letters. In 1853 I was bound as an apprentice to Mr. Weston, a colored tailor. I was so small then I could hardly see over the bench. I studied all the signs and all the names on the doors where I carried bundles, and asked people to tell me a word or two at a time until, in 1860, I found I could read the papers.
“My mother told me if I would learn to write,” Homes continued, “she would give me a gold dollar. A part of my duty was to sweep the store in the morning, and I took some time to look in the measuring books to see how the writing letters were made. In this way I learned to write. On Sundays, in 1860, the men in the store hired me to read the New York Tribune or Herald. I did not care much for the news myself; only the better the news the more they paid me.
“In 1862 the Yankees were near Charleston, and our owners wished to take us to the country,” Holmes noted. “As we were not inclined to go, we were privately sold to a trader. During the day we were kept in the slave mart, ready to be examined, and were fed on cow’s head, boiled grits, and rice; at night we were locked up. I read the papers to the keeper, and in consideration for that he would give me permission to go down on the wharf in the morning, and I never failed to look for the Yankee boats. I read Lincoln’s proclamation in the prison. Such rejoicing as there was then! One old man held a prayer meeting right there in the mart. I was finally sold to Mr. Kaylor, who gave me five dollars, told me to go and bid my mother goodbye, and meet him at the depot; but the trader would not allow me to leave the pen. The next day Mr. Kaylor took me out himself, granted me a few hours with my friends, and then sent me on to Chattanooga.
“Here he first hired me out at a hotel,” Holmes related, “and then took me into his own store. He seemed to have great confidence in me, for he often said, ‘I’d trust any part of my business to Ben.’ In 1863 he and all his clerks were conscripted, and I ran the store myself for a day and a half, when he and one clerk were exempted. I remained here till December, 1863. Then the Yankees came into Chattanooga, and pressed many of the colored people into their service. We were determined to have an interview with the Yankees, and so slid away quietly, and were pressed into service with the others. I engaged myself as a servant to Jefferson C. Davis, of the 14th Army Corps, and continued with him until March, 1864. Then Mr. Kaylor offered me thirty dollars a month to return to his service. I was receiving but ten at the time, and he placed me in his store in Nashville. My next experiment was as a clerk to a colored barber, at sixty dollars a month. I had learned to make change, though I hardly knew how the knowledge had come. I was in his place for two years, and thinking all the time about going to school; but when I mentioned it to my employer, he promised to take me in as a partner if I would remain a year longer. He died shortly after; but, before his death, sold out to me in a deed of trust, to pay certain debts. He made me administrator, the first colored administrator in the State of Tennessee.
“Our expenses had been four thousand a year,” Holmes explained, “our rent was one thousand; there was a mortgage on furniture and fixings, and the estate proved insolvent. I came out three hundred dollars in debt, and quit the business.” In 1868 Holmes enrolled at Fisk University, dropped out but returned and began his commitment to the church community. He was so successful in his studies that he became a deacon at Fisk’s Howard Chapel.
As a member of the original Jubilee Singers, Holmes became its most eloquent spokesman and sent weekly dispatches to Lewis Douglass’s newspaper, New National Era. Holmes often clashed with Jubilee Singers director George White, and eventually arranged his own farewell concert in London, England to benefit the singers themselves. He quit the troupe and died of consumption in Nashville on October 9, 1875 at the age of 28.