NOTE: The story, first published in 2018, has been updated with newly-discovered information about this groundbreaking concert. See below.
Did you know that Mansfield is one of the places where American musical history was made?
In fact, it was made over 148 years ago, on November 29, 1871.
On that date, a concert took place here featuring a group of singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. That institution of learning, founded a few years previously to provide African American students with the best education possible, was struggling in the post-War south and faced bankruptcy. The idea was advanced by Fisk’s treasurer to have a number of students form a choir which would travel to raise funds for the college.
The music director of the group was George L. White, who set out to prove that African Americans were capable of performing music on a professional level.
The Fisk singers left on October 6, 1871 for their first tour. Initial concerts were primarily composed of Stephen Foster and other traditional “minstrel” style songs, and the route taken largely followed Underground Railroad routes taken by escaping slaves only a decade-plus before. When the group reached Columbus, they rested after facing hostility and criticism for not performing in the then-popular minstrel style, itself partially predicated on negative racial stereotypes. As a means of encouragement, White re-branded the group the “Fisk Jubilee Singers.”
And, to directly address critics, the Jubilee Singers added music from their own tradition – and in particular, spirituals – to their concerts after that point. By doing so, the group exposed the rest of America to the rich history of music created and sung by slaves, music which had heretofore been secret, sung on the fields and behind closed doors.
As it so happens, one of the first times that spirituals were performed for a northern audience occurred right here in Mansfield on November 29. At that performance, the group sang “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army.”
Over the next several years, the singing tours continued not only in the US but in Europe. Today, the Jubilee Singers are still a vital part of the history and outreach of Fisk University in Nashville. In 2008, the group was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the country’s highest honor for artists and patrons of the arts.
Below, watch and listen to a short overview of the group’s history.
Sources: Mansfield Herald, Wikipedia, Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry by Sandra Jean Graham; Fisk University