From Slavery To Stardom: Remembering The Fisk Jubilee Singers Of Fisk University In Nashville

The Fisk Jubilee Singers. Photo: Fisk University


It was an all-Black choral group that was set up with the hope of raising funds to save the university established to school freed slaves. The task was daunting because the African-American singers were scorned and looked down on when they stepped on stage to perform lyrics known as slave songs.

But, as they sang the melodies selflessly wherever they went, the hardened hearts began to soften and people donated freely to their cause. According to Britannica, when the idea was mooted to set up the school in 1865, they were known as Fisk Free Coloured School. The university started running its programs in 1866 to provide education for freed slaves.

Their first sponsorship came from the American Missionary Association. As the years went by, they became Fisk University. But, the school was drowned in debt in 1971. What placed the school in the spotlight was the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their performances. It was an initiative embarked on by its school treasurer and music professor, George L. White, to dig the school out of its predicament.

Many doubted White’s dream of using a choral group to save the University from going bankrupt. With a nine-member group comprising five women and four men, they commenced a music tour with the hope of raising money to make the university liquid again.

Professor White borrowed funds to enable the nine students to embark on the tour despite the disapproval of school authorities. It was uncertain what informed the doubts of the school’s management, but, it was a fact that Professor White was not a trained musicologist, just a good singer.

The singers who were selected were between the ages of 15 to 25 years old and had a strong association with slavery, according to

The name Jubilee Singers was derived from the biblical inspiration of Professor White who said the jubilee stood for all those enslaved who had gained their liberty. When doubts succumbed to hope, the Jubilee Singers rose to national attention for their authentic songs and beautiful voices.

They adopted the chilling slave songs when they experimented with classical songs and failed to raise the expected funds. Their songs were rare and authentic, and wherever they sang them, they built a following in every state.

In 1873, the Fisk Jubilee Singers had an invitation to stage a performance in the presence of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. After numerous tours embarked on by the group in the United States and Europe, the Jubilee Singers raised $150,000 to save the future of Frisk University.

They built Fisk University’s first structure named Jubilee Hall from the proceeds of their tour. The group was however disbanded after the school management overused it in raising funds in 1878.

The group reorganized in 1879 and began its musical performances and tours. It was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame in 2000. The group was in Ghana in 2007 when the West African nation was celebrating its 50th anniversary.

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