At the end of the Civil War, the number of newly freed slaves in the U.S. was estimated at almost four million. Because the established schools and colleges of the nation were not inclined to throw open their doors to these new citizens, thoughtful individuals began creating schools especially for them.
Fisk University opened in Nashville in 1866, the first U.S. university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” But five years later the school was in financial difficulties. In 1871, George White, the school’s treasurer and music professor, created a choir of Fisk students and took them on tour to raise money for the school. Their early performances were met with “surprise, curiosity and some hostility” as these young singers who did not deliver the expected minstrel performance. But eventually their talent, dignity and persistence prevailed. And their success inspired legions of imitators, some from schools, others with a more commercial agenda — so many “jubilee singers” in fact that promoters went to great pains to assure the public that their particular troupe of singers was “genuine.”
Skaneateles hosted many of these choirs. The reception accorded the first few did not reflect well on the village. In January of 1884, the Skaneateles Free Press ran this article:
In October of that year, the New Orleans University Jubilee Singers, “composed entirely of colored people,” appeared at Legg Hall. (New Orleans University was a historically black college founded in 1873.) You have to give the singers credit for courage, and the lack of newspaper accounts suggests that the village behaved itself.
In October of 1887 and again in January of 1888, the Centennial Jubilee Singers of Storer College sang at Legg Hall. The first concert was to raise money for the college’s “Girl’s Boarding Hall” at Harper’s Ferry, and the second benefited both the college and the Skaneateles Fire Department. The troupe’s reviews from other towns glowed with praise:
“We have no hesitation in saying that they sing the religious melodies and hymns of the Southern Negro population with astonishing effect, and in a manner to challenge attention. Without doubt the alto of the troupe [Miss M.E. Dixon] could distinctly sustain her part alone in a chorus of five thousand voices.” — The Boston Herald
“One could listen hours to those rich, mellow voices with a restful pleasure which Trovatore or Tannhauser does not give. Their voices are evenly balanced and in perfect accord for concert singing. The opening chant showed what they could do; this was rendered with an expression which many a cultivated church choir might envy. Miss Dixon has a pure alto voice, of such power as to be almost phenomenal.” – The Portland [Maine] Daily Advertiser
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, circa 1885
In March of 1891, and again in March of 1895, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, from the Fisk University of Nashville, performed to a full house at the Skaneateles Library, upstairs in “Library Hall,” to benefit both Fisk and the library. The group was already world famous, having performed at the White House for President U.S. Grant (in 1872) and President Chester Arthur (in 1882), toured Europe and performed for Queen Victoria (in 1873). (In their second visit to Washington, the choir could not get a hotel room, but their singing of “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” at the White House moved President Arthur to tears.)
In 1893, the New Orleans University Jubilee Singers returned to Skaneateles, and the newspaper assured the public that, “The great attraction of the New Orleans Jubilee Singers is that they sing the genuine negro melodies in the genuine negro manner.”
In 1898, the Claflin University Quintette, of Orangeburg, South Carolina, performed at the Methodist church, and the Rev. L. S. Boyd afterwards noted:
“The Claflin Quintette sang here last night to the expressed delight of a packed house. It is asserted on every hand this morning that if these young men were to appear here again, no building in town could hold the audience. The boys are intelligent and cultured, and any house which entertains them will do itself a favor. I am pleased to give them unstinted commendation.”
In September of 1898, J.K. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Co. brought its show to Legg Hall, and one of its attractions was “the original and justly famous South Carolina Jubilee Choir composed of genuine southern darkies.” The editor of the newspaper, in the grip of some incomprehensible compulsion, continued, “To secure this attraction it was necessary to exercise a great amount of tact and diplomacy, as the true Southern darkie has a horror of being brought into notoriety or being placed in public places or made the least bit conspicuous. They claim they were aired enough during the great war on their behalf.”
In 1900, the Methodist church hosted the Thomas & Tucker Jubilee Singers, a group noted in history as having included Noble Sissle, the pioneering American jazz composer, lyricist, bandleader, singer and playwright who penned “I’m Just Wild About Harry” with Eubie Blake, and the musical Shuffle Along that ran on Broadway for more than 500 performances.
In 1907, the Orpheus Jubilee Singers performed in Skaneateles at the Methodist church. Of the group, it was said that Maude Browne, a soprano, had a voice “rich, rare and full of sweetness of quality,” and that the singers had the good taste to preserve the traditions and simple beauty of their songs and “to perpetuate no travesty on the work.”
In 1914, the Mason Jubilee Singers, a “famous colored company,” appeared at the Methodist church with a program of “Negro Life in Song and Story, Plantation Melodies and Old Folks Songs.” The next year they sang in Marcellus, where the Marcellus Observer delivered this bizarre, left-handed compliment, “You have heard a ‘culled pusson’ sing. Their voices find close harmonies not found on piano keys. A genuine southern darkie is always interesting. Add to that training, ability, stage experience, the attraction becomes greater.”
In May of 1925, the Methodist church hosted the Peerless Jubilee Singers , a quartet. They had recently sung at Cornell University, and the Cornell Sun reported:
“They give the concert In two parts. The first section will consist of songs of the days gone by. Among these, the artists will sing ‘Swanee River,’ ‘Go Down Moses,’ ‘Hand Me Down,’ and a number of others. The second part will open with a chorus ‘By the Waters of Minnetonka.’ This section of the program will be devoted almost entirely to solos by various members of the troop. They will close with ‘II Trovatore’ by Verdi.”
One can see the “Jubilee” repertoire expanding, and journalism crawling forward into the 20th century, at least in Ithaca.
Of the groups who sang here, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to perform.