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How did white Americans come to adopt slave songs like "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"? Personally, I learned my spirituals from country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford, bless his little pea-pickin' heart. But historically, white America learned its spirituals from the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American group that toured America and Europe from 1871 to 1878, raising funds for Nashville's newly birthed Fisk University.

The Jubilee Singers' story begins with evangelical abolitionists who believed in the power of education to elevate former slaves and equip them for full participation in American society.

Arthur and Lewis Tappan founded the American Missionary Association (AMA) because they believed existing mission societies were complicit with slavery. AMA agents followed the Union armies' advance through Confederate territory, setting up schools to bring Christianity and literacy to freed slaves. By 1867, over 38,000 students were enrolled in the AMA's day or night schools. And by 1869, it had founded eleven colleges for former slaves, including Fisk.

As the AMA spread its resources thinly, Fisk teetered financially. Its treasurer, George Leonard White, had been in the Ohio Infantry, whose battles had taken him to Tennessee. There he began teaching music and penmanship at Fisk and then took on the management of the school's finances.

Tell Them We Are Singing For Jesus, Toni P. Anderson's new history of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, calls White ambitious, headstrong, and obstinate—qualities that fitted him to pursue his daunting vision of fielding a singing group to raise funds for fragile Fisk. The singers braved bad weather and racial bias and found little success until famous ...

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hide thisNovember November

In the Magazine

November 2010

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