By John Martin

One day in 1873 a group of students, all but two of them former slaves, entered the office of their college principal. They shut the door, locked it, pulled the curtains, and proceeded to sing spirituals in rich harmony.

It was the first, tentative act that launched what would lead to global acclaim for the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

This story is from the diaries of Ella Sheppard. She became the lead soprano and stage director of the Jubilee Singers. They sang softly, she wrote, “learning from each other the songs of our fathers. We did not dream of ever using them in public.”

For the next two years the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured Europe and the United Kingdom. By the time their tour was over, their spirituals were renowned.

“I would walk seven miles to hear them sing again,” Mark Twain wrote.

Prime Minister William Gladstone hosted a private breakfast for them. Queen Victoria was delighted by their melodies and made a special request for them to sing “Steal Away.” And she commissioned a grand portrait of the group that now occupies pride of place at Fisk University.

“To me, Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil,” said W.E.B. Du Bois, one of Fisk’s best-known graduates. He devoted a chapter of The Souls of Black Folk to the Jubilee Singers.

A book by historian Viv Broughton tells the singers’ story at greater length. The narrative suggests there was a point when the group realized that songs from their years of captivity were more powerful than the songs of white culture in their original repertoire.

Soon after the grueling tour the group disbanded, but there was a clamor by other singers to step into their places. Successive generations of Fisk Jubilee Singers have performed ever since. A favorite custom among the singers is to imitate the original group’s portrait during commencement ceremonies.

The group sang at Hackney Empire in East London on March 24.

For the last 25 years the Fisk Jubilee Singers have been directed by Paul Kwami, who was born in Ghana, studied at Fisk, and is dedicated to preserving the choir’s 150-year heritage.

“The music we sing today helps to bridge the gap between Africans and African Americans,” he said. They perform the same repertoire of spirituals, from “Go Down Moses” to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” They sing at about 30 concerts annually.

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