Thus far we’ve profiled three members of the legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers—Eliza Walker (alto), Isaac Dickerson (tenor), and Benjamin Holmes (bass). Before we close out the series on the original Jubilee Singers with a group portrait, we highlight the musicianship of Ella Sheppard, who was listed as a soprano, but she was also an accomplished pianist.
Sheppard’s account actually begins with her telling Gustavus Pike about her father, who bought himself from slavery in Nashville, Tenn., where she was born in 1851. She was gravely ill at 15 months while living in Mississippi with an inattentive mother. When her father heard that their master was preparing to sell her he hurried to Mississippi, paid $350 for her and brought her back to Nashville with him.
“Shortly after,” Sheppard continued, “he returned to purchase my mother. The bargain had been made; my father, mother, and the overseer, were in Nashville, and the bill of sale was to be signed the following day, when word came from her master that she must not be sold, but returned to Mississippi; and so she was obliged to leave her husband and child at once, and go back again into slavery. My father then kept a livery stable, and was doing quite a good business, owning four carriages and eight horses.”
It is not clear in her recollection exactly what happened then between her father and mother but apparently that marriage ended and he married again, and once more purchasing his wife from slavery for $1,300. Her free papers, however, were not completed and six months later her father’s business failed from his inability to pay his debts. “One night he was secretly warned by a white gentleman that his creditors intended to claim my mother. If a man bought his wife, she was considered his slave until free papers were made out, and could be taken for debt the same as any other property. My father quickly returned to his house, and hastened my mother off for Cincinnati that very night. They went a long distance to a station in the woods, where they would not be recognized, to take the twelve o’clock train. Soon after he took me and followed, leaving everything to his creditors. Here he began life over again. We had literally nothing to start with, but collected household furniture piece by piece. My mother took in washing and ironing, and when able to do so, kept a private boardinghouse. I attended the Seventh Street colored school, but when twelve years old, was obliged to leave my studies on account of ill health, and could not return to them till I was fourteen.”
She had begun taking piano lessons a year before with a German woman. For two and half years she studied with her. But a tragedy would interrupt this process when her father died of cholera. Their financial situation was not very good but she was fortunate enough to be adopted by J.P Ball who thoroughly trained her in music. A succession of teachers and benefactors entered her life and eventually she was off to Fisk University.
“First week a friend sent me one music scholar,” she said, “and in a few weeks I had two others. At the end of the term I was nearly sick, and spent the vacation with my stepmother. I entered school again in the fall, and studied till Christmas, and then gave myself entirely to preparing for the concert shortly to be given. After the concert I was thrown onto my bed, and not able to do any thing. Permission was granted to me to remain at the school, and help or pay as I was able; and I should have been forty-four dollars in debt at the end of the year, had it not been for the sewing I did at odd moments, or when confined to my bed. That vacation I was offered the position of assistant music teacher in the University. I retained that position during the year, and at the close, after assisting to prepare the pupils to sing the Cantata of Esther, I was requested to remain, and help drill the Jubilee Singers during the summer, before we started for the North.”
As you see, Sheppard had to overcome a number of obstacles to attain her musical plateau. In the next and final installment we will profile the remaining original members of the Jubilee Singers, Thomas Rutlin (tenor), Maggie Porter (soprano), Minnie Tate (alto), and Greene Evans (bass).