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A Passion for Music

For my family, holidays and summers are often filled with as much music as possible. We will play and sing together. When I attended college, occasionally students wondered why I was in both the choir and orchestra if I was not a music major (I majored in Archaeology). I was in both groups because there is something powerful and soul filling about music that adds to one's life, and can often express what words cannot.

One choir would use that power to help raise money for their University.

If you have ever sung the words, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Go Tell It on the Mountain", or "I Woke up This Mornin' with my mind stayed on Jesus", then it is much thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Fisk University was established shortly after the American Civil War ended.

"In 1865, barely six months after the end of the Civil War and just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, three men — John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith — established the Fisk School in Nashville. The school was named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau, who provided the new institution with facilities in former Union Army barracks near the present site of Nashville's Union Station. In these facilities Fisk convened its first classes on January 9, 1866. The first students ranged in age from seven to seventy, but shared common experiences of slavery and poverty — and an extraordinary thirst for learning." (1)

Fisk University was one of the first universities in America "to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” (2) Today, Fisk is one of the countries' historically black schools, other well known schools include Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, Howard University in Washington DC, and Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama.

A few years after Fisk opened its doors, the school, like many others, was in dire financial need. In order to raise money, George Leonard White, the school treasurer and music professor, gathered together a group of nine students and took them on a tour around the country. The group departed the Fisk on 6 October 1871. Every year on the sixth of October the school celebrates "Jubilee Day", which commemorates this tour and celebrations include a convocation and at the end of the day singing at the graves of the original singers.

While on tour to raise money for their school, the group did share some of their profits with others in need.

"One early concert in Cincinnati brought in $50, which was promptly donated to victims of the notorious 1871 fire in Chicago. When they reached Columbus, the next city on tour, the students were physically and emotionally drained. Mr. White, in a gesture of hope and encouragement, named them “The Jubilee Singers,” a Biblical reference to the year of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 25." (2)

Samuella 'Ella' Sheppard and Minnie Tate were two of the original Jubilee Singers.

Ella was born on the 4th of February 1851, on Andrew Jackson's plantation, the Hermitage, in Tennessee.

"A biracial relation of Jackson's family, her [Ella's] father Simon Sheppard had purchased his freedom by hiring himself out as a Nashville liveryman and hack driver. When she was a little girl, her slave mother Sarah, threatened to drown her and herself if their owners refused to permit her and her husband to purchase her freedom. But an elderly slave prevented her, predicting that "the Lord would have need of that child." Her owners refused to release Sarah, but allowed her [Ella] to go with her father, who soon remarried and, fearful he and his daughter might be re enslaved, fled penniless to Cincinnati." (3)

Ella's father purchased her for the sum of $350 dollars.

In Cincinnati, Ella would go on to study music. She would learn piano and would become a teacher, eventually moving to Gattlin, Tenneessee to teach other freed slaves. When she attended Fisk, Mr. White asked her to accompany and sing with the choir.

"After her father's death from cholera, she supported herself, her stepmother, and her half sister Rosa by teaching at a school for former slaves. Managing to save about six dollars in five months, she proceeded to Nashville in 1868 to enroll at the Fisk Free Colored School (now Fisk University). Her skill as a pianist immediately drew the attention of Fisk treasurer and musician George White, who appointed her his choir's accompanist and assistant choral director as he prepared his group for a tour of the North." (3)

Besides assisting Mr. White in directing the choir, Ella also worked to collect and transcribe spirituals for the choir to sing.

While the Author is uncertain of the date, Ella married Revered George Washington Moore, one of the most prominent black ministers in Nashville. They had two sons George and Clinton Fisk Moore (named for the founder of Fisk University). The Moores became friends with other intellectual black couples, such as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass and Mr. and Mrs. Booker T. Washington.

Another original singer was Minnie Tate (who was born in 1857 in Nashville, Tennessee). At age 14, she was one of the youngest Jubilee Singers in 1871 when the group formed. Minnie's mother and grandmother had both been slaves in Mississippi. Upon their release form slavery, they migrated north to a German settlement in Tennessee, where Minnie's mother was educated along with the other children of the settlement and later became a teacher.

Minnie enrolled in Fisk University and with the Jubilee Singers traveled around the country and to Europe. She married another Jubilee Singer R. A. Hall. They had a son named Roger. On 4 December 1886, Minnie's husband passed away leaving her a widow. She followed him in death thirteen years later on 29 April 1899. Posthumously, Minnie as well as some of the other original singers were granted Doctorates in Music from Fisk University.

Besides touring the United States, the Jubilee Singers toured Europe in 1873, including singing for Queen Victoria.

"In 1873 the group grew to eleven members and toured Europe for the first time. Funds raised that year were used to construct the school’s first permanent building, Jubilee Hall. Today Jubilee Hall, designated a National Historic Landmark by the US Department of Interior in 1975, is one of the oldest structures on campus. The beautiful Victorian Gothic building houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria during the 1873 tour as a gift from England to Fisk." (2)

This heritage of singing continues today, as the Fisk Jubilee Singers have won awards and tour sharing the songs of their ancestors. Below is included an educational concert that was recorded at the John F. Kennedy Center in 2010.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers today build on the legacy of the original nine, who more than sharing the songs of their people showed that young people of color could be well educated.

"The contributions of the original nine Jubilee Singers and their successors to the growth of the university and the establishment of the spiritual as an authentic musical expression are immeasurable. The young singers proved themselves intelligent, accomplished, well-rounded people, completely competent to assist their school and themselves. They totally confounded critics who questioned the fitness of African Americans for education, especially higher education." (4)



Fisk Jubilee Singers ~ Our History and Fisk Timeline

Library of Congress ~ African American Spirituals

Tennessee Encyclopedia ~ Jubilee Singers of Fisk University

Ella Sheppard Moore:

PBS ~ American Experience ~ Ella Sheppard, Soprano

Find A Grave ~ Ella Moore

Black Nashville Genealogy & History ~ Biographical Profile: George Washington Moore

New York Public Library Digital Collections ~ Ella Sheppard

Minnie Tate Hall:

Find A Grave ~ Minnie Hall

HBCU Library Alliance Digital Collection ~ Fisk Jubilee Singers, original member, Minnie Tate

New York Public Library Digital Collections ~ Minnie Tate (photograph) and Minnie Tate (drawing)

George Leonard White:

Historic Path of Cattaraugus County ~ The Amazing George Leonard White

PBS ~ American Experience ~ George Leonard White

Clinton Bowen Fisk:

Dickinson College: Archives & Special Collections ~ Clinton Bowen Fisk

Find A Grave ~ Clinton Bowen Fisk

Tennessee Encyclopedia ~ Clinton Bowen Fisk

Wikipedia ~ Clinton B. Fisk

African American Registry ~ Clinton Fisk, Freedman's Bureau Pioneer


PBS ~ American Experience ~ Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory

The Jackson Foundation (YouTube channel) ~ Creative License - Fisk Jubilee Singers


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