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1899 Fisk Jubilee Singers

Photo_ Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were students from Fisk University, Nashville, USA who set out on tour to raise money for their University inaugurated for the education of freed slaves. It was previously known as the Fisk Free Colored School, established in 1866 after the American Civil War. The Singers were invited to Britain in 1874 by an aide to Queen Victoria, and performed at the Cradock Street Music Hall in Swansea to 1500. Described erroneously by Swansea's Cambrian daily paper as "the exponents of true Nigger Minstrelsy" owing to the profusion of minstrel groups currently performing, they in fact sang a programme of Strange Weird Slave Songs with concert hall authority and refinement, together with a poise and elegance of dress, in marked contrast to previous "blackface minstrelsy" troupes who performed in burnt cork.

Photo_ 1899 Fisk Negro Spirituals Songbook. Song no. 7 Roll Jordon Roll (WJA collection)

Touring Wales, however, offered an extra dimension for the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Memories remained strong in Wales of the discriminatory and damning Report into the State of Education in Wales published in 1847 by English Anglicans, which denounced the Welsh language and morals of the people, and described Welshwomen as "corrupt and sinful" with no "virtue in their offspring". Welshwomen workers in coal and steel retreated to the home, and children caught speaking Welsh in schools had a block of wood enscribed with "I Must Not Speak Welsh" hung about their necks. Recognising another culture denied their heritage and freedom of speech and expression, Welsh audiences to some extent identified with their visitors and took them to their heart.

Photo_ Fisk Jubilee Singers from cover Diary of Fisks (The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Hodder & Stoughton, 1903. WJA collection)

The concert proceedings were chaired by local dignitaries. The Jubilee Singers returned again to the Music Hall in 1875, and were described this time as "born as slaves and had all their lives been driven like lepers from any contact with white people, they will give one of their interesting concerts". (A Swansea woman, Mrs. Donaldson who died aged 90 in 1899, ran a "safe house" for seven years on the banks of the Ohio River, opposite the slave holding state of Kentucky. She and her husband were Abolitionists.) Welsh audiences unable to afford the 2s. ticket price could place their pennies in buckets at the door, while "silver collections" were taken from the balconies. The concerts were described as "highly instructive with the independence of the music of poverty". The first building on their campus, Jubilee Hall, was completed with Wales contributing $20,000 to the building fund.

Illustration_ Fisk Jubilee Singers (WJA Collection)

By 1876 Swansea was fielding its very own Jubilee Singers under the leadership of Mr. Stephen Williams; the Swansea Jubilee Singers "assisted" at local literary and musical gatherings.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers may have visited Swansea again in 1878, this time with the Jarrett and Palmer's production of Uncle Tom's Cabin Company, featuring "a host of freed slaves the male and female Jubilee Singers".
In 1878 Fisk University ceased to use the Jubilee Singers as a means of revenue and disbanded the company on their return to the USA in 1878.

Engraving_ Fisk Jubilee Hall (WJA Collection)

Photo_ Fisk Jubilee Hall, now women's halls of residence (WJA Collection)

One of the original company, F. J. Loudin who sang bass, took over as Manager and Director in 1882 and the Fisk Jubilee Singers embarked on further world tours, or revivals, returning to Swansea's Albert Hall (previously named the Music Hall) on 13th and 15th February 1899, presided over by the Mayor of Swansea. The Women's Jazz Archive holds a copy of the 1899 Programme.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers returned to Swansea as a Trio in 1907, heralded with a photograph and long Daily Post interview; this time led by Mr. Eugene McAdoo, with Emma Mocara and Laura A. Carr.

With no longer any need to fundraise for Fisk University, the Trio was purely a commercial venture with a brief to continue performing the Slave Songs for the Edification of the General Public. This time the Fisk Jubilee Trio donated a large part of the takings to the Swansea YMCA "for the benefit of the poor of Swansea" as a "thank you" for the support Swansea had given previously. They opened in style with two concerts at the Grand Theatre on Good Friday 29th March 1907, which attracted 1600 at each performance, presided over by the formidable cigar-smoking industrialist and politician Miss Amy Dillwyn. Supporting the Trio were the Swansea Trombone Quartet and Swansea Temperance Silver Band. Another two concerts were hastily arranged for the next day at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church to accommodate a further 3000.

Illustration_ 1874 Service of Song Strange Wierd Slave Songs, Fisk Jubilee Singers "True nigger minstrelsy and praiseworthy labourers in the good work of raising the money necessary to perpetuate the Fisk University" (The Cambrian Indexing Project, Swansea Reference Library).

Again it was not enough and two further concerts took place at St. Andrew's on 3rd April, billed as A Unique Programme of Plantation Songs, Negro Melodies, Prayer Songs as Rendered by the Negro Slaves; a further 3000 attended. Still the Swansea appetite could not be sated, and Two Song Services were again hastily arranged for the 7th at the Grand Theatre with the YMCA Men's Own Orchestra providing support.... free admission but Silver donations welcomed for those that could. Yet another 3000 attended and the Daily Post commented the Fisk Jubilee Trio "were in top form with harmonious and cultured singing, a concert to be remembered".

Those living outside Swansea demanded a South Wales Tour and the Fisk Jubilee Trio set off on the 8th April to Clydach, then on to Pontardawe, Aberavon, Ystalyfera, Pontardulais and Morriston. The Swansea audiences alone, in one week, totalled 12,200. These 1907 tours were still in living memory of the 1847 Education Report, the repercussions of which remain in place in Wales today.

Illustration_ Fisk 1899 Programme. Singers led by Frederick Loudin. Mary Llewellyn Jones of Swansea attended the concert. She belonged to the Caradog Choir and possibly attended with them, and kept the programme. Syd Jones of Swansea, her grandson aged 90, donated a copy of the Programme to the Women's Jazz Archive in 1999 (WJA collection).

Death claimed 5 of the early Singers, "20 of the number had actually served as slaves and Messrs. Rickerson, Watkins, and Rutlize remained in Europe". Julia Jackson was paralysed during the second visit to Britain in 1875. Tom Rutling settled in Harrogate and taught singing. Ella Sheppard, Soprano and Accompanist, enrolled at Fisk in 1868 aged 15 and became assistant music teacher in 1867. She toured with the group for 11 years until Frederick J Loudin took over in 1882. Ella Sheppard's mother was sold into slavery, but her father "was permitted to purchase the 3-year-old Ella for $350". She was eventually reunited with her mother. Ella Sheppard "became a researcher and lecturer on African American and women's issues" and lived with her husband, Fisk graduate George Moore, opposite the University. She died in 1914 aged 63. Frederick J. Loudin's grandparents "were natives of Africa who were stolen and brought to America in a slave ship". His forebears were a Scot and an English sea captain. Mr. Loudin eventually settled in Britain.

The current Fisk Jubilee Singers are led by Dr. Paul Kwami. The Women's Jazz Archive is currently trying to interest sponsors in funding a Celebratory Return Visit to Swansea by the current Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Dr. Ray Winbush, Director of the Fisk Race Relations Institute, recently hosted the RRI Conference 2000 How Racism Affects The Life Cycle, to which many public figures attended.

Reproductions of Fisk Jubilee Singers Courtesy of Special Collections, Fisk University Library, Nashville, Tennessee. The Women's Jazz Archive would like to thank Dr Paul Kwami and Dr Ray Winbush for their support and encouragement during this research project.