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The 1871 Broadcast
Imagined September 2021


... And thus, dear listeners, on this 16th of November in the year of our Lord 1871, we have reached the intermission of this session of the Congregational Council.  Tomorrow we anticipate the formal establishment of the denomination to be known as the National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States of America. 

The delegates are gathered this week in a large Congregational house of worship, the Meeting House of Charles Grandison Finney's renowned First Church in Oberlin, Ohio.

Our broadcast location happens to be located next to the delegation from the state of New-York, namely Rev. George Pelton of Candor, Rev. Butler of Fairport, and Mr. Clark Bell of New-York City. 

Oberlin, as I'm sure you are aware, is the home of Oberlin College, the nation's first racially integrated institution of higher learning.  The redemption of the recently emancipated slaves is here considered to be a holy calling, and many missionaries have been trained.

Some of those emissaries to the freedmen have joined the faculty of Fisk Free Colored School, which opened five years ago in Nashville, Tennessee.  During the late Civil War, the ground upon which it now stands was under the control of Union forces and hosted an encampment of fleeing slaves.

We have been joined now by a special guest, a man who serves Fisk as both music professor and treasurer, Mr. George Leonard White.

Thank you.  I am honored to have served at Gettysburg, and I am honored to be here at this conference, to which I have brought with me some of my vocal students.

We understand that your songsters will shortly be providing music for us.

That is correct.  We had hoped to be welcomed during the formal proceedings of the Council itself, but that did not prove feasible.  Therefore we will be performing during this intermission.  I observe that the delegates have taken the opportunity to converse and move about the auditorium, but we hope they will pause and lend an ear.

How is it that you have traveled this far north?

Well, as you mentioned, I am the treasurer of our young college, and of that treasury's dire condition none knows better than I.  Six weeks ago, to raise funds to continue our operation, I used my own savings to organize a concert tour.  I boarded a train with nine young vocalists to visit the more prosperous regions which were spared from the war's desolation.

The first such region is here, my former home state of Ohio.  Now it is true that some at Fisk have expressed fears that we shall engender only ridicule.  Neverthless, we have faith that we have been called to the North, to sing the money out of the hearts and pockets of the people.

Is your effort succeeding?

We have had, shall we say, mixed results.  Many of the people who first came to hear our young black musicians were expecting a minstrel show.  But no, we aspire to be serious artists.  We wish to absorb the culture of American freedom.  Therefore, we present popular American music and classics from the European tradition, to demonstrate what higher learning can do for freedmen.

However, we also include a few songs from our students' heritage in Africa and America — religious songs.

At first we performed these only as encores, but white audiences are receiving the novel tunes with excitement. 

Here is Ella Sheppard, one of our sopranos, who can tell you more.

Some of us were reluctant to perform “spirituals” and other music associated with slavery and the dark past.  Those are secret songs, sacred to our parents, and we never sang them in public — only in fields and behind closed doors.  They represent things which now are to be forgotten.  But Professor White has begun to collect and arrange these songs for us, and audiences seem to appreciate them.

Have your listeners donated to the collection plate, Professor White?

On our second night out, in Cincinnati, we received contributions of some fifty dollars.  But that happened to be the eighth of October, which was the night of the great Chicago fire.  One hundred thousand people were left homeless there, a third of the city's population. 

In the next day's newspapers we read about those poor people in Chicago.  At once we determined that our small profit should be donated to the relief fund for the victims of the disaster.

I understand that your little band of singers has been retracing the route of the Underground Railroad, which once led escaped slaves north to freedom.  You've performed in small towns and in cities like Chillicothe and Columbus.

Yes.  However, I fear that thus far we have failed in our efforts to earn enough money to cover expenses, let alone being able to send a remittance back to Fisk.  At Columbus the newspapers were not kind to us, and we were put up in terrible lodgings.  We are tired and discouraged.

But we are determined to persevere!  In particular, we have looked forward to coming to Oberlin.  The college at this place has been educating black and white students together for 36 years already.

And I notice that you hope to perform during the Christmas season at Henry Ward Beecher's famous church in Brooklyn, New York.

If we are able to do so, perhaps thereby our group will become better known.

What name have you given to your ensemble?

I have prayed upon that matter.  In the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Leviticus we read:  A jubilee shall that year be unto you.  Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound, and ye shall proclaim Liberty throughout all the land!  We have talked and sung so much of the “year of Jubilee” that I can think of no expression that so nearly gives the idea as “the Jubilee Singers.”

How appropriate!  I'm reminded of the National Peace Jubilee that was held in Boston a year or two ago.

Indeed.  And a second such event has been proposed for the Fourth of July next, this time to be styled the World Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival.  We hope to receive an invitation.  I dare to dream of my Fisk Jubilee Singers standing before forty thousand and performing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.  As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free!”

But now, Professor White, I see that you are being beckoned forward.  Go ahead and rejoin your students, for it is now time for them to sing.  I predict that when they lift their voices, conversations will cease and the entire assembly gathered here at Oberlin will be spellbound.

Thank you, sir, for your good wishes.

Professor White is a tall man, and we see him bending down now and passing along the pew, giving his vocalists the pitch. And now all is ready.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Steal Away

Vann R. Newkirk II went to Fisk University to research the choir.  In the December 2023 edition of The Atlantic he wrote:

Henry Ward Beecher, an immensely influential abolitionist and preacher ... invited the group to sing for his congregation in Brooklyn.  They chose to begin the Brooklyn concert with a dramatic innovation: singing from the church balcony, obscured from the crowd by a curtain, their spectral voices filling the nave.  And they chose to lead with “Steal Away,” the spiritual that had gotten them to Brooklyn in the first place.

According to Fisk's account of the Jubilee Singers, “So soft was their beginning that the vast audience looked around to see whence came this celestial music.  Gradually louder and even louder the voices rose — to a glorious crescendo —and then back down to a mere whisper, ‘I ain't got long to stay here.’”  As they sang, the curtain was pulled back to reveal their faces.  The audience's reception was rapturous: “They clamored for more — would not let the singers cease.”

For more, here is a feature from Creative License.



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