• Exploring American History

Jubilee Singers kept the doors of Fisk College open

On January 9, 1866, Fisk College opened its doors for the first day of classes. Established by John Ogden, Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath and Reverend Edward P. Smith, the new institution was named for General Clinton B. Fisk who led the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau. The college offered opportunities for higher learning to black Americans, but within five years, the school found itself in dire financial straits.

In an effort to save the fledgling institution from fiscal ruin, Fisk's treasurer and music professor George L. White brought together a nine-member choral ensemble from among the college’s students. The group named itself the Jubilee Singers and on October 6, 1871, left campus on its first tour. To commemorate this event, Jubilee Day is now an annual celebration every October 6th.

The Jubilee Singers became the first black musical group to achieve international acclaim with their renditions of Negro spirituals. Their success was phenomenal and raised enough money to fund the construction of the first permanent structure on campus. The building was appropriately named Jubilee Hall.

Numbered among the many awards presented to the ensemble is the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor for artists and patrons of the arts. It was presented to the Jubilee Singers in 2008 by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush during a ceremony at the White House.

Through the efforts of the Jubilee Singers, racial barriers were broken both in the United States and abroad during the late 19th century as the group not only entertain dignitaries in the U.S., but also sang for the crowned heads of Europe. The tradition of the Jubilee Singers continues on as the ensemble travels the world preserving and sharing the unique music of the Negro spirituals.

. . . after a while, it’s almost like therapy. It begins to take the frown out of the face. The shoulders begin to come back to their natural position. What’s happening is, you’re going through a cleansing process. You’re coming back to where you wanted to be. Things are not quite as bad as you think they are. And the more you sing it, the more you find relief, the more you believe that there is a way out of this.” Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer

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