wing Low Sweet Chariot, Steal Away, Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen–each of these songs are likely familiar to our ears, and they all have one thing in common: they are African America Spiritual Songs. Born out of the oppression of slavery, these songs echo the eternal hope found in Jesus Christ. In light of the atrocities being committed against the African people, these men and women rose up, lifted their eyes to the Heavens and chose to remember the Lord.
These songs served a dual purpose, though. Not only were they worshipful, but they also often beheld hidden meanings, directions to escape from slavery through the underground railroad. For centuries, these songs tended both to the spiritual and physical needs of oppressed slaves.
For much of their history, these songs were muted to the population. They were given no time, or place of importance. But that changed with the introduction of an African American choir: The Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Fisk University is located in Nashville Tennessee and opened its doors after the Civil War in 1866. This school was the first in America to offer college education to both white and black students. Many of the 900 students were former slaves with an age range that spanned across decades of time. As a means of raising funding for the university, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were born.
Nine singers along with a music professor formed an ensemble, performing untraditional songs in an untraditional fashion, began a concert tour. The white professor, a man by the name of George White, was intent on displaying the giftings and talents on his students, seeking to prove their equality with white men and women. Slowly but surely the five women and four male singers built up an audience base. Where the singers were once met with skepticism, God opened the doors for them to be respected and acclaimed.
Because of their song selection, white and black audiences alike were blessed to hear the African American Spirituals. What was once hidden from the public eye became thrust into the spotlight. This publicization of such intimate music was revolutionary for Fisk University, Black Americans, and the nation as a whole.
The mission of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to raise money for their school was profoundly successful. Over the course of their American tour, they raised over $50,000. As the group picked up notoriety, they engaged in the opportunity to tour through Europe, a trip that would raise $150,000 dollars for their university, leading to the construction of a building.
If the name of the ensemble sounds familiar to you, you may recognize it from the Old Testament. Their name is a reference to the year of Jubilee found in Leviticus 25. The year of Jubilee occurred every 50 years in the nation of Israel, it was a time in which debts were cancelled, land was returned, and slaves were freed. As an image of grace, mercy, and theGospel, the year of Jubilee reflected the mission and hope deeply engrained in the free men and women of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
"You are to consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants. It will be your Jubilee, when each of you is to return to his property and each of you to his clan." Leviticus 25:10
The story of the Jubilee ensemble is one that strikes my heart each time I dwell upon it. Through oppression, the heart songs of African Americans prevailed. Displaying incredible strength, faith, and perseverance, we now learn from these songs and those who sang them. We learn about what it means to endure suffering. We learn what it means to fix our eyes heavenward. We learn what it means to love, truly love, our brothers and sisters in Christ. I, for one, am grateful for the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and all those who sang their songs before them. We are better because of them and their examples of faith.