The spirit and spirituals of Fisk University have inspired the world

By DOUGLAS T. BATES III

NASHVILLE, Tenn., Oct. 28, 2015 — On the evening of Oct. 5, 1871, a group of young Americans of African descent gathered in Nashville with a Union Army veteran who had fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. They had come to a chapel to pray God’s blessing on a desperate gamble they were making, a courageous tour upon which they were about to embark. Little could any of them know they were about to accomplish their meager, yet, forlorn, dream in a way which would stir the world, or that they were starting a music tradition that would be thriving 144 years later.

They were and still are revered as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

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Douglas T. Bates III (left), takes us to Fisk University.

The story begins as the shame of slavery ended in America. But how could a race, of albeit noble and industrious people, become full citizens without education? They could hardly look to the Southern white establishment, who had fought to keep them enslaved and now certainly did not wish them to be educated. So schools were formed to educate black teachers who would then educate children of their race. One of those schools was first named Fisk School, then quickly Fisk University, still located here.

Fisk began her work in 1865 amidst the throng of newly freed slaves who had come to Nashville to join a substantial member of freedmen who called Nashville home. In order to teach these future teachers, it was often necessary to teach them to read. White missionaries came from the North to begin this monumental task, but by 1871, Fisk was broke.

On the credit side of Fisk’s ledger, there was approximately $1,000 in cash. On the debit side, there was approximately $15,000 in obligations.

A BIG, BOLD GAMBLE. So that Union veteran, George White, the school’s treasurer, suggested a “Hail Mary pass” of breathtaking proportions – they would take all of the money the school had and fund a concert tour through the North.

The performers would be nine Fisk students, and their songs would be a genre which were encoded hymns of hope, set to haunting melodies created by American slaves. They’d be strange songs to strangers, and this is what they gambled the entire existence of their school upon.

Why did they offer such a humble stake? It was all they had.

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The original Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, about 1871.

So, on that long-ago October 5, who could blame their timid prayer: “Oh, Lord, if this thought comes from Thee, prosper the going out of these young people.”

Or who could not comprehend the tears and misgivings of those who sent these young people off the next day – none of them even had winter clothes. They had each been through many personal trials; they were all of deep faith; still…             

Who could know that they would even donate the entire earnings of their first concert in Chillicothe, Ohio, to the victims of the great Chicago Fire which took place that very week? And who could know that when they returned five months later, they had raised the $15,000 to pay their school’s debts? Who could know in a year they would raise enough money to build the most beautiful building in Tennessee, Jubilee Hall, which still stands? Who could know that in three years they would perform for President Grant, Queen Victoria, British Prime Minister Gladstone, and the Austrian composer Johann Strauss?

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Jubilee Hall still stands on the Fisk campus, a tribute to the Jubilee Singers who saved the school.

CREATING A HUGE LEGACY. They indeed toured America and Europe, encountering and conquering racism, giving the world the most beautiful Christian music ever sung. The melodies of these “slave songs” still echo in Gershwin and Copeland, can be picked up in Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.   The lyrics of their songs would give their progeny hope for their struggle for full citizenship a century later. They are still sung in churches worldwide. Who could have known?

Or who could have known on that Oct. 6, 1871, morning when the Fisk Jubilee Singers headed North, that three years and hundreds of thousands of miles later, they would have raised $150,000, securing the future of their school, which still stands proudly today.

Yet, if they could have known all of that, surely they would have been astonished to also know that well over a century later, Fisk’s sons and daughters would gather every Oct. 6 to remember these heroes.

This year they were joined by a gray-haired old white pilgrim.

Why?

Well, there are stories so powerful that they live every moment in the hearts of their heirs, and I like learning about those stories – and feeling them myself if I get the chance.

Every Virginia Military Institute graduate, and my son is one, carries with him the “Battle of New Market,” where those young students were victorious in an 1864 Civil War battle. No Mormon ever is far away from “The Trek,” where their ancestors walked bravely across the Midwest to Salt Lake City. And so it is that within the first hour of setting foot on campus, a Fisk student learns of the Jubilee Singers.

COURAGE, HOPE AND PRIDE. The story of those young students who toured the world with their music, first saved, then prospered, their school still sweetens every breeze stirring on Fisk’s campus. It gives every student, teacher, and administrator courage and hope and pride. And, like the Battle of New Market and the Mormon Trek, it can do the same for any pilgrim who wishes to partake of its inspiring ethers.

So, on Oct, 6, 2015, I journeyed to Fisk for her annual “Jubilee Day” on the 144th anniversary of when those students boarded a train and eventually saved their school and forever changed the world of music. My wife Molly was tending to dental woes, so I went by myself, though, I would not be alone for long.

I arrived an hour early and was graciously welcomed by Lynnwood Berry, who seemed to be the official host. Being an hour early, I sat on a rock wall to watch my fellow pilgrims stream into the lovely Fisk Chapel.

“You look lonely – may I join you?” asked a lovely lady. She asked me who I was, then I asked her.

“I’m Robyn Sims,” she said. “I am an alumna of Fisk. So was my mother, and my husband is the president of Fisk.”

So for the next 30 minutes or so, she would be greeted by arriving dignitaries and she would summon me to come meet them. I met the director of the Jubilee Singers, Paul Kwami. I met many – maybe all – of the current singers. I met her husband President Frank Sims. I met the day’s speaker, Rev. Leslie Dowdell-Cannon, a Fisk graduate now senior pastor of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C.  And I met Vincent Leal, president of the Fisk Alumni Association.

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The Fisk Jubilee Singers in a more recent year.

And then Robyn Sims looked into my eyes and said, “You will sit with me on the front row.”

And so it would be that I had a front row seat in a worship service which would move me to the marrow of my bones. It was conducted by my new friend Vincent Leal, a distinguished and urbane man, a proud son of Fisk. The speaker  Rev. Dowdell-Cannon gave a homily which was a masterful combination of history, comical memories of her student days at Fisk, and an inspirational charge to go forth as did those young singers in 1871.

We were then treated to the current Jubilee Singers performing two spirituals. Words fail in describing the day, but they especially fail in trying to capture the exquisite beauty of those songs. Queen Victoria was moved to tears when she heard them long ago. So was a humble pilgrim from down the road in Centerville, Tenn., on this day.

We then joined hands and sang, “The Gold and the Blue,” the gorgeous Fisk Alma Mater. I sang it from memory, for I have known the words by heart for two decades.   (By the way, here is a challenge – go on the Fisk campus and ask any student to sing their song. ANY student. You will hear it I promise.)

VISITING SOME OF THE ORIGINAL NINE. After the service in the chapel, we joined a 20-car procession behind a shuttle bus and went to three cemeteries, where the current Jubilee Singers sang one of their songs as they stood by the graves of six of those original nine. But before they sang, a student of Fisk would tell about the one whose grave we were visiting. Their stories were of unfathomable hardship and of glorious perseverance. And the story always ended with these words, “An Angel on the Altar.”

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I have since spoken at some length with Vincent Leal, president of the Alumni Association. He was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, in the shadows of Yale University. He graduated from Fisk in 1976 and has had a distinguished career as a federal bank examiner. He lives now in Texas and coordinates the work of Fisk Alumni Associations all over America.

“Our main mission is to recruit students to come to Fisk,” he told me. (I thought back on the three students who rode with me to the graves – they were all from the West Coast). “And when they leave,” he said, “we expect them to make the world better.”

No one back in October of 1871 could have been so bold as to charge those Jubilee Singers with such a commission. They were trying to merely save their school. But they did more. Praise God, they did more. They did what Leal insists all Fisk’s children do when they leave, to “make the world better.”

For the stirring words of the Fisk Alma Mater ring true:

Hurrah and hurrah for the Gold and the Blue
Her sons are steadfast
Her daughters are true.

Amen.

THE SONGS OF THE JUBILEE SINGERS

While we know them now as “spirituals,” the Jubilee Singers called their songs “slave music,” even in the advertising material for their concerts. Their melodies were probably those composed as they worked in the field, but their words often had double meaning. “Pharaoh” was the code word for the “white master.” The “Jordan River” often was understood to be the Ohio River, where on the northern side freedom could be found. The “chariot” often meant the Underground Railroad which took the slaves to freedom.

As their words literally, also, spoke in terms of hope amidst hardship and of ultimate salvation in heaven, they became favorites of all religious people who looked for better days ahead.

Examples: “Walk Together Don’t You Get Weary,” or “What Kind of Shoes You Going to Wear,” “The Gospel Train is Coming,” “Steal Away,” “Good News, the Chariot’s Coming.”

A PORTION OF THE “JUBILEE DAY PRAYER” 

As delivered by Derrick W. Dowell, Fisk ’76, at this year’s Jubilee Day convocation on Oct. 6: “O Lord, we ask that you hear our prayer of Thanksgiving for the treasured gift of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who set out from this place, faced with uncertainty, carrying their songs of hope into an unfriendly world. As your children, they walked together, not giving in to growing weary. Though their faith in Thee, their collective sacrifice saved their beloved, yet beleaguered school from financial hardship.

“We ask Your blessing upon the current Fisk Jubilee Singers. Allow them to fully understand their inherited legacy: to sing the Spirituals before a world that seems to have steered away from the compass of dignity, respect, decorum. May they find inspiration in knowing this special place measures success by Your standard, by how well it cares for even the least of these. May they grow fully, responsibly.

“To her sons and daughters scattered throughout the world, the Jubilee Songs will forever be a source of hope, spiritual testimonies of Your goodness, Your grace and Your mercy that has brought us this far.”

FISK UNIVERSITY TODAY 

Fisk continues today as a private, liberal arts university with an enrollment of about 750, primarily African Americans. The 40-acre campus is located a mile directly north of Vanderbilt University and a half-mile east of Tennessee State University, all about two miles west of downtown Nashville.

It has long been a center of civil rights advocacy and study, led by such early leaders and faculty members as W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells. Among its students who changed Nashville in the civil rights campaign of the late 1950s and ’60s were Diane Nash and John Lewis, the latter who went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from Atlanta.

Like many small predominantly African American colleges in the U.S., Fisk has struggled financially in the last 25 or 30 years. During that time, there has been increased competition for black students from larger private and public universities across the South and beyond.

Fisk still has an affiliation with the United Church of Christ.

The author, Douglas T. Bates III, is a semi-retired attorney in the central Tennessee town of Centerville, about 60 miles west of Nashville. He and our Chuck Offenburger have been best friends since they went to Vanderbilt University together way back in the 1960s. You can write him at dtbatesiii@gmail.com or by using the handy form below here.

4 thoughts on “The spirit and spirituals of Fisk University have inspired the world

  1. Douglas, what a delightful article and encounter. Your writing drips with Southern charm. An aside: My father graduated from college in 1930 from the College of Wooster. He did a year of grad work at Illinois and earned an MA in Classics. The only job he could find was at Knoxville College. He finished his doctorate in the next two years and taught for a total of five years at Knoxville before going on to Michigan State as chair of the Classics Department. He did have some stories about his time at Knoxville.

    Art Seaman, Kittanning, PA

    • Thank you Art. I thought of you and your dad when I was there at Fisk, for you had told me years ago about your connection to Knoxville College. Especially thank you for your attribution to me of Southern-ness. The culture of the white man and the black man in the South are entwined, and one cannot appreciate the culture of the South without appreciating the enormous contribution of African Americans. Heck, they taught us to talk without accents.

      Love to you, old friend. How bout those Spartans!

  2. The author of this exceptionally accurate and touching article, Douglas T. Bates III, has a love for young people which extends into action. When I was teaching at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., Doug heard my a cappella choir sing our school alma mater and took us under his wing. With his vision, enthusiasm, and leadership we produced three high-profile concerts over as many years. He secured for us the space and services of a youth camp to hold our annual pre-fall term “boot camp” in choral music. Doug brought highly successful and very influential speakers to our camp to guide and inspire those young people with life lessons and stories, many of which guide those students, now adults with families, to this day. I know this because I hear from these former students. Doug helped us organize and was a member of our Council of Mentors, the purpose of which was to introduce college students to people in successful careers.

    Later when I was at another institution, he arranged for that choir to be hosted in his home town. The group gave seven programs at five different churches of diverse faith foundations over the course of a weekend.

    This article is a window into the servant heart of Mr. Bates. The legacy of the century old efforts of the Fisk Jubilee Singers well could be emulated in higher education today.

  3. Douglas,

    Excellent article in the Bates’ style. I am forwarding it to my daughter and son who appreciate your expertise, persistence, and professionalism flavored by compassion that continues to bless our family and countless others. Keep learning and writing. It helps me.

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