In the months following the Civil War a group met in Nashville, Tennessee to create a school for former slaves and the children of former slaves. Clinton Fisk, a Reconstruction-era bureaucrat, endowed the new enterprise with much needed funds and a collection of abandoned army barracks. What would become Fisk University was born, one of the oldest historically black colleges in the U.S., producing alumni like W.E.B. Du Bois, Hazel O’Leary, and John Lewis.
It wasn’t easy for Fisk, an African American school in the Deep South of the late 1800s. Within a few years the fledgling institution hung on the precipice of bankruptcy. The music director – who was also Fisk’s treasurer and understood the grave financial crisis – organized a few of the students into a touring choir.
They called themselves the “Jubilee Singers,” an appropriate name. “Jubilee,” described in the Hebrew Scriptures, came around once every fifty years. It was a season of forgiving debts, returning repossessed property, terminating the obligation of indentured servants, and setting slaves free. These slaves-turned-singers hit the road, traveling church house to theater and stage to parlor, selling performance tickets with proceeds going to keep the Fisk school open.
Eventually, the Jubilee Singers made it all the way to Europe, singing for sold out audiences that included continental royalty. It’s alleged that Queen Victoria of England was so struck by the Jubilee songs that she quipped, “With such beautiful voices, these people must be from the Music City of the United States,” a name that Nashville has worn proudly ever since.
Yet, these liberated voices contributed much more than the money to save Fisk from default. More than any other group in history, they catalogued and preserved a unique genre of music: The African American spiritual. Singing about what they knew, they belted out tunes like, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.”
These musical masterpieces – slave songs – were composed orally in the tyrannous fields of the American South, and would become the backbone of roots, folk, gospel, jazz, and Americana music up to the present day. But the Jubilee Singers weren’t interested in artistic creativity. They sang to stay alive. They sang to persevere. They sang to resist the injustice and “conformity of this world.” They sang in pursuit of freedom.
Dr. King recognized this spiritual heritage a century later, and its enduring power. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, concluding his most famous speech, he returned to the African American spiritual. His words, joining the music of his ancestors and predecessors, remain a challenge to all who hear:
“When we allow freedom to ring we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands and sing, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” May this song never leave our lips or hearts until it is true; until all of God’s children are free.