top of page

musings from linda 8/11/23

It was November 16, 1871… A group of unknown singers (all but two were former slaves and many were still in their teens) arrived at Oberlin College to perform before a national convention of ministers.


In one of the first public performances of music that African Americans for generations had only sung in fields or behind closed doors, these original FISK JUBILEE SINGERS introduced “slave songs” to the world — thus preserving the unique American music known as “African-American Spirituals.”

FISK UNIVERSITY had been established by white abolitionists in 1866 to educate former slaves. Operating in an abandoned military hospital in Nashville, by 1871 it was on the verge of collapse for lack of funds. The school’s treasurer, George White, loved music and had formed a student chorus. To raise money, he proposed that a group of his best singers travel the route of the old Underground Railroad; hopefully the abolition-minded audience would reach deep into their pockets once they heard the students sing!

At first, they included only a few spirituals as encores. It was difficult for the students to sing about slavery and the dark past they had worked so hard to escape. BUT — once they began to include more of them, audiences were spellbound… “All of a sudden there was no talking… you could hear the soft weeping.“ Success followed — sellout crowds, generous donations, endorsements from people like Mark Twain, President Ulysses Grant, Queen Victoria…

Despite encountering virulent racism, the singers toured the U.S. and Europe in the late 19th century. Their efforts saved the school — AND because they were so beloved and admired — some segregated communities actually began improving.

George Pullman himself integrated all the Pullman cars when the students were denied berths on trains… (click here to read more amazing history of the FISK SINGERS)

Music has enormous POWER! — to change people’s lives … to heal broken hearts, to lift spirits, to move us beyond our troubles — if only for a few minutes. BUT those few minutes make life so much more bearable… One story of the power of their music:

Only a few years after the Civil War, the singers were stranded at a train station in rural Tennessee when an angry racist mob arrived. In the face of the white men’s fury, the terrified students began to sing… Then — one by one, “the riotous crowd left off their jeering and swearing and ‘slunk back’ until the leader stood near Mr. White and finally took off his hat. He begged us, with tears falling, to sing the hymn again…” It is said that the “hymn” was I WANT JESUS TO WALK WITH ME. It is song of lament — and a song of personal invitation — as well as a statement of faith that Jesus walks alongside those who suffer. The slaves’ faith in Jesus was an intensely personal one; the fact that Jesus had passed through His own troubles and trials — and had triumphed — gave them courage to go on.

Today THE FISK SINGERS continue the tradition of singing the Negro spiritual around the world — winning countless awards, including in 2008 the nation’s highest honor — the National Medal of the Arts.

Click here to listen to them perform I WANT JESUS TO WALK WITH ME…

THEN — plan to attend worship this Sunday and hear our own Bill Clemmons sing it!! He will be accompanied with strings, played by the rest of the Clemmons family. The power of music continues… Don’t miss it!

21 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Eve Lee
Eve Lee
Aug 12, 2023

Thanks for this beautiful story and song that uplifted my spirits tonight...

bottom of page