Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. Galatians 5:1 (The Message)
Christ set us free from the yoke of the rigorous demands of Old Testament law as the means for gaining God's favor - an intolerable burden for sinful man. Likewise, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 lifted the yoke of human slavery for all persons held as slaves. With the recent tragic event in Charleston and subsequent fallout prominent at every turn, I am reminded of an inspirational story of nine young people who found hope in their new life of freedom.
Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, opened its doors in 1866, at the close of the Civil War, as the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to "young men and women irrespective of color." It was one of the schools established for liberated slaves by the American Missionary Association.
Among the professors was a New Yorker, a white man named George White. As music instructor, he taught his students classical cantatas and patriotic songs, but he was particularly intrigued by the old plantation melodies he overheard in the dorms and among the students between classes. White had trouble coaxing his students to sing those songs for him; it seemed a particularly private type of hand-me-down music. There were no written scores or words - just plaintive strains passed voice to voice between the generations.
Five years later, Fisk University found itself in dire financial straits, without even money to buy food for its four hundred students. Regretfully, the Missionary Association decided to close the school. When White approached the trustees suggesting a series of fundraising concerts, the board refused. White decided to try anyway. "I'm depending on God, not you," he told the board.
Selecting nine students, White and his wife sold their jewelry and personal belongings to finance the first tour. On October 6, 1871, the singers boarded a train in Nashville for the Midwest. It was a hard trip, and at times the young people had to relinquish their seats to white folks. Other times they were evicted from trains or hotels. Sometimes the little group, braving threats, insults, obscenities, and indignities, sang in nearly empty halls and churches.
At the National Council of Congregational Churches meeting in Oberlin, Ohio, some of the delegates protested giving time to the "colored students from Fisk University." With the pressing nature of denominational business, their slate was full. But George White wouldn't be denied, and what happened next changed the course of American music.
Delegates were weary from the dismal weather of the day and long business sessions. When the meeting recessed, singers from Fisk filed quietly into the choir loft and began to sing. Delegates stopped talking, and every face turned toward the music. "Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus," came the song in beautiful, brooding harmony. After a moment of stunned silence, the convention burst into wild applause.
Among the delegates was Henry Ward Beecher, a noted pastor from Brooklyn who immediately begged the group to cancel its tour and come directly to his church in New York. Unable to do that, George White offered the group for a December concert. Knowing the importance of this engagement, White agonized about naming his group; and in Columbus, Ohio, after spending much of the night in prayer, he found the answer. They would be the Jubilee Singers, the biblical year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 being a time of liberation for slaves.
On December 27, 1871, the Jubilee Singers sang at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Rev. Beecher, deeply moved, stood and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to do what I want every person in this house to do." He turned his pockets inside out, giving all the money to the Jubilee Singers. That night the offering was $1,300! Newspapers picked up the story, and soon the Jubilee Singers had engagements around the world.
In 1872, they sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston, and at the end of that year, President Ulysses S. Grant invited them to perform at the White House. In 1873, the group grew to eleven members and toured Europe for the first time. Funds raised that year were used to construct the school's first permanent building, Jubilee Hall, designated a National Historic Landmark by the US Department of Interior in 1975 and one of the oldest structures on campus. The beautiful Victorian Gothic building houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria during the 1873 tour as a gift from England to Fisk.
Thanks to the Jubilee Singers, Fisk University is still training young people today - and still sending out its Jubilee Singers to churches and concert halls across America and around the world.
Prayer for Today
Lord, we give you thanks for the beautiful music of American spirituals, for the brave souls who introduced them to the world, and for the freedom we enjoy to sing them today. Amen.