On two previous occasions we have featured two female members of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers and one male vocalist. This week we balance that equation with the addition of Isaac Dickerson. He was born in Wytheville, Virginia on July 15, 1850, the same year the infamous Fugitive Slave Act was passed, making it open season for bounty hunters on runaway African captives.
Both parents were enslaved, and Isaac only vaguely recalled when his father was sold to a Richmond slave trader. He was five years of age when his mother died. “He always speaks very pleasantly of his owners,” Gustavus Pike recounted in his book on the history of the group. “He worked in the house until the [Civil War] broke out.”
Isaac’s master was Captain J. F. Kent, who, at the very commencement of the war, was at Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown launched his raid on the armory there. Shortly after, Captain Kent was appointed colonel of the Home Guards, and Isaac was with him in the camp. They were in several fights when the Yankees came in—one at Wytheville, one at Marion, and two at King’s Saltworks.
“At Wytheville,” Pike wrote, “they took the village and captured the men. His master made his escape on a swift horse; but Isaac, with the rest of the captives, was marched some seventy-five miles, and then paroled. He promised to remain with a Yankee officer as servant; but when he saw his master’s friends returning, his heart failed him, and he hastened after. Two weeks after the war his master told him he was free, and for three weeks he wandered about trying to find work, and finally was engaged as a table waiter at Colonel Boyd’s hotel. Here he received ten dollars a month, and after saving up a little sum, went to Chattanooga.”
Isaac worked first in a hotel and then in a store owned by a Jewish man. In this store his employer’s little son taught him to read and to write. He made the acquaintance of the Rev. Mr. Tade, superintendent of the A. M. A. School in Chattanooga. This gentleman hired him to cook for the mission family, and allowed him to attend school for certain hours.
One winter he spent was as a waiter at Lookout Mountain Institute. For six months he taught school in Wauhatchie, Tenn. This was in the region where colored teachers were not welcomed by the white residents. According to Pike, Isaac received a number of warnings written upon the trees for him, and notes to quit brought him by the children, as well as some other forcible invitations to leave.
But Isaac was undaunted, and stayed on until the end of the term. “His experience may have been worth something to him,” Pike recorded, “but his purse was not much the heavier for his six months’ work; for I cannot learn that he ever received any wages, though promised twenty-five dollars a month.”
In 1866, he was in Memphis when the riots occurred and after a brief stint teaching embarked for Fisk University. This was not an easy venture for an impoverished young Black man. But he was determined to get there no matter the difficulty. Then there was the problem of tuition, and, ironically, one of his principal studies at the school was economics. He was noted, from his first entrance into school, for his fondness for music, and in the “Cantata of Esther” he sang the part of Haman. During the last year of his stay at the University, he manifested much interest in religious matters, and conducted two prayer meetings a week in little cabins not far from the school.
Soon his talent prevailed and he was both a singer and teacher at Fisk. Pike wrote that during Isaac’s tenure with the Jubilee Singers he traveled broadly but when the group arrived in Britain he left and was sponsored to study in Scotland at the University Edinburgh. Living on the continent, he took advantage of the location and traveled to France. But his home was in London where he continued to teach until his death there in 1900.