Professor’s book tells story of Jubilee Singers
Feb. 15, 2010

Dr. Toni Anderson, Chair of the Music Department, didn’t know much about the Fisk Jubilee Singers until she started teaching at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, a historically black institution.

“Being on the music faculty, of course the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers came up, and I was intrigued,” she said.

She was so intrigued that she made the group the topic of her doctoral dissertation at Georgia State University. And now, 15 years later, she is publishing a book about the group, “‘Tell Them We Are Singing For Jesus’: The Original Fisk Jubilee Singers and Christian Reconstruction, 1871-1878.”

“The quote in the title came from a letter one of the singers sent home during their first tour,” Dr. Anderson said. “It sums up the perspective of the singers, as well as the American Missionary Association, who founded Fisk University and sponsored the singers.”

Dr. Anderson explained that Fisk University was opened in Nashville, Tenn., in 1866 to offer a liberal arts education especially for newly freed African-Americans. In fact, all but two of the original Jubilee Singers were former slaves. But within five years, the school was in financial trouble.

From those dark days was born an idea. George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor, created a nine-member choral ensemble of students and took it on tour, hoping to earn money for the school.

The initial response to the musicians was discouraging, with audiences unsure how to react to black singers who were not performing in the popular “minstrel” style.

But soon, thanks to the choir’s talent, attitudes began to change. Skepticism gave way to standing ovations and critical praise. In 1873 the group toured Europe for the first time. Funds raised that year were used to construct the school’s first permanent building, Jubilee Hall, which houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria during the tour as a gift from England to Fisk.

The success of the Singers was important to the missionary association, Dr. Anderson said.

Tell Them We Are Singing For Jesus “The worldview held by the AMA – a Christian understanding of how to achieve reconstruction-was one they hoped to promote through the ensemble,” she said. “That view gained a face with the Jubilee Singers.”

Much of the original material in her book came from the archives at Fisk University.

“I quickly learned that there just wasn’t much out there about black history at that time,” she said. “But I was able to find so much at Fisk.”

Turns out, the university's archivist , Beth Howse,  was the great-granddaughter of one of the original Jubilee Singers. She and Dr. Anderson became friends.

Some of the primary data on the Jubilee Singers had not been catalogued,” Dr. Anderson said . “Research trips turned into treasure hunts. Every time I went to Fisk, I'd find new stuff."

One day, she spotted a black trunk that had FJS stenciled in white on the top.

“I asked my friend what it was and she said, ‘I don’t know,’” Dr. Anderson said. “Inside were volumes of letters from the managers and booking agents who worked the field, booking the tours. Some of these letters had never been opened. It was an incredible feeling, knowing I was perhaps the first one to read them in 100 years.”

Dr. Anderson participated with WGBH-TV in Boston in the making of a documentary on the Jubilee Singers which aired in 2000 as a part of PBS's American Experience historical series. But now her own book about the courageous young men and women who used their voices to save their beloved university is ready to hit the bookstores.

“It is such an amazing story,” Dr. Anderson said. “I feel honored to be able to tell it.”

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