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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

December 5, 2017: Reconstruction Figures: The Fisk Jubilee Singers

[December 9th marks the 145th anniversary of P.B.S. Pinchback assuming the Louisiana governorship, making him the first African American governor in U.S. history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five figures from the Reconstruction era, leading up to a special post on Pinchback himself!]
On two of the many vital legacies of a cultural and historical artistic project.
While the kinds of post-slavery and –war debates and questions I discussed in yesterday’s post were of course central threads to Reconstruction, the period was also intensely focused on the future, and more exactly on how to help African Americans become a full part of this new American community within that future (or, for far too many Reconstruction actors, how to stop them from doing so). Chief among the progressive responses to that question was an emphasis on education, one that took place in every community and at every level but that included the founding of a number of new African American colleges and universities. One of the earliest such post-war institutions was Fisk University, founded in Memphis as the Fisk Free Colored School just six months after the war’s end by members of the American Missionary Association. By 1871, thanks to the vicissitudes of Reconstruction among other factors, Fisk was struggling to stay afloat financially, and its treasurer and music director, George White, decided to found a choral group that could tour to raise funds and awareness for the university’s community and efforts.
That group embarked on its first national (and eventually international) tour on October 6th, 1871, the beginning of a more than 18-month period of performances. Early in the tour—faced with one of their many encounters with racism and hostility, this time in Columbus, Ohio—White and the performers decided to name themselves the Jubilee Singers, a tribute to the spiritual and cultural vision of a “year of jubilee” after emancipation. By the end of the tour, the Jubilee Singers had more than lived up to that name, achieving a series of stunning triumphs that included performances at the Boston World’s Peace Jubilee and International Music Festival, at the White House for President Ulysses Grant, and (when the tour was extended to an overseas leg in 1873) for England’s Queen Victoria. In an era when nearly all of the representations of African Americans onstage were performed by whites in blackface—whether in overtly racist minstrel shows or in slightly more nuanced productions such as Tom Shows—it’s difficult to overstate the importance of this group of talented African American performers taking and commanding the stage, offering an alternative to those constructed representations and giving voice to their own identities, stories and histories, and communities in the process. That’s one legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and it continues to this day.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers also connected, overtly, immediately, and importantly, to the aforementioned questions of historical memory, however. They did so first and foremost through their choice of repertoire, which in its initial iteration focused almost entirely on African American slave spirituals (what W.E.B. Du Bois would later call, in his beautiful, multi-part engagement with the genre in The Souls of Black Folk, “sorrow songs”). I believe it’s not at all inaccurate to say that by arranging and performing their versions of these songs, the Jubilee Singers helped keep them alive, indeed helped turn them into a foundational and ongoing genre of American music that could endure into future generations and would influence every subsequent such genre. In so doing, I would argue that they provided one middle ground answer to the debate between Crummell and Douglass I highlighted yesterday—a way to carry forward communal memories and voices of slavery without dwelling in the most horrific and traumatic elements, to build on that historical legacy but at the same time to take potent and inspiring ownership of it for new purposes and goals. That’s a model of the best of Reconstruction, and precisely the kind of story and history we need to remember if we’re to move beyond the most limited and mythologized collective memories of the period.
Next figure tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction figures or stories you’d highlight?

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