In 1866, at the height of Reconstruction, Fisk University was born. Fisk was established in Nashville, TN as an elite school for black Americans and has gone on to solidify itself as one of the top educational institutions in the country. But it almost wasn’t to be.
Fisk had been struggling with finances upon its opening, and by 1871 they were almost out of money. Enter George L. White, the school’s music teacher and treasurer. White organized a choir tour of his program’s top singers, and the group traveled the country to rave reviews. Up until that point, most Americans had only really seen black performers in minstrel shows. That first Fisk Jubilee Singers tour is credited with introducing America to the beauty of Negro spirituals and black faith tradition.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers weren’t simply singing students. Many of them were former slaves. Their introduction to the nation at large helped to serve as a window into the humanity and dignity of the victims of one of the worst human rights abuses in our nation’s history. They performed with grace and class and audiences responded enthusiastically.
The tour was so successful, Fisk was able to purchase the land it was built on, and it remains one of the most successful HBCUs in history. The choir recently celebrated 150 years of melody and has won numerous state and national awards over the years. We can still listen to recordings from the group all the way back to their earliest days.
This Black History Month, let us recognize this inspiring American success story, and celebrate the creativity, resilience and determination of some of our finest citizens. They presented beauty in a world that was still reeling from the ugliness of slavery, and they stand as an amazing example of American ingenuity and problem-solving. When the chips were down, they used what they had to create their own prosperity. It is an example we can all live by these days.
Happy Black History Month.