African-American History Month - "proclaim liberty throughout the land"
Fisk University was established in Nashville in 1866 with the mission to educate freed slaves. It was established by the American Missionary Association as Fisk Free Colored School, named for Brigadier General Clinton Fisk, who, as head of the Kentucky and Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau, transferred unused barracks in the city and endowed the school from his own wealth. The school attracted students of all ages, but incorporated Fisk University in 1867 to train teachers and graduated the first African Americans from a liberal arts college south of the Mason–Dixon line.
But you know I’m here to talk about music, right? AMA’s mission and Fisk’s gift only went so far. The school started a choir to tour and raise funds. Of course their focus would be spirituals, songs known to all the former slaves, so in memory of slavery and to honor freedom they were dubbed The Jubilee Singers. The original four men and five women toured the country and earned enough to build the campus’ first permanent building, Jubilee Hall in 1876. Their tour had other positive results. First, in an age of blackfaced white performers, audiences were stunned by the authenticity of African-Americans performing the music they created. Second, this was the first time many audiences had ever heard the “jubilee” music, exposing white audiences to black spiritual music. Former Jubilee Singers Musical Director Horace C. Boyer. “They said you could hear the soft weeping…” One unintended result came when, while performing for the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria in 1873, she exclaimed that they must be from America’s Music City, one of the origination stories for Nashville’s nickname. Those tours ensured the success of what is now known as an “historically black college.” The group disbanded just a few years later but was reformed in 1879. The lineup changed, but the mission remained the same - bring this sacred, purely African-American music to the world while supporting the school. The male quartet recorded 90 songs from 1909-1927, and on this day in 1911 in Camden, New Jersey, put three of them on Victor Records: “My Soul is a Witness,” “Band of Gideon,” and this one-
Just this once, I won’t argue the point that Memphis is America’s “real” music city and go with my Grandmother's Queen. Jubilee Hall is in use today as an undergraduate residence. The university has graduated such luminaries as W.E.B DuBois, Cora Brown, the first African-American women elected to a state senate (Michigan), former Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, and Georgia Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, The Fisk University Jubilee Singers, now 14 strong, continue to perform.