The Wilmington Jubilee Singers

I discovered the Wilmington Jubilee Singers while I was exploring old newspapers in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). The BNA is an invaluable on-line resource that is making available (for a small fee) digital copies of the historical newspapers preserved at the British Library in London.

The British Library holds the largest collection of British newspapers in the world. It has more than 60 million newspapers. That’s enough to fill more than 24 miles of shelf space– and that doesn’t include the newspapers preserved on hundreds of thousands of microfilm reels!

The British Library's newspaper collection includes more than 60 million newspapers.

The British Library’s newspaper collection includes more than 60 million newspapers. Courtesy, British Library

I happened upon the Wilmington Jubilee Singers accidentally, while I was doing other historical research in the BNA.

I had never even heard of the Singers before. Quickly, though, I learned that they were a chorale group of ex-slaves– originally from here in North Carolina–  that performed in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the 1870s and ‘80s.

They traveled throughout the United Kingdom, giving concerts in which they sang hymns and spirituals in a close harmony style, either a cappella or accompanied only by a pianist.

Wherever they went, they spread the Gospel and shared songs and stories about African American life during slavery and the Reconstruction Era.

Theirs is a story that would have taken months of research at the British Library only a few years ago.

Thanks to the BNA, their story came alive for me almost in the blink of an eye.

Through those newspapers, I was able to follow the Wilmington Jubilee Singers’ path across the Atlantic and to scores of provincial churches, town halls and opera houses from one end of Great Britain to the other.

Touring the U.S. and Canada

Here’s what I discovered: According to the British newspapers, a group of ex-slaves from Wilmington, N.C. founded the Wilmington Jubilee Singers in 1868, only three years after the Civil War.

At least some of them had been among the most down and out. One of the singers, Alexander A. Davis, later told a British audience that he had lived under such oppressive conditions that he had not even known that slavery had ended until two years after the Civil War.

When I next found evidence of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers in the historical record, they were touring the northern U.S. and Canada in 1873-74.

Estey Hall, Shaw University, Raleigh, N.C..

Estey Hall, Shaw University, Raleigh, N.C.. Photo by David Cecelski

That was a fundraising tour for the Shaw Collegiate Institute (later Shaw University), in Raleigh, N.C. Shaw was founded in 1865 and was the earliest institution of higher learning for African Americans in the South.

Led by Nettie M. Sage and Shaw’s founder and president, Henry Martin Tupper, the Singers raised enough funds to build Estey Hall, said to be the first university building for black women in the U.S. and a historic landmark that is still a central part of Shaw’s campus today.

Ezekiel Ezra Smith, from Arthur B. Caldwell, History of the American Negro and His Institutions, 1917.

Ezekiel Ezra Smith, from Arthur B. Caldwell, History of the American Negro and His Institutions, 1917.

Ezekiel Ezra Smith is probably the best-remembered member of that version of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers.

Born in Duplin County, N.C., in 1852, Smith was a cooper in Wilmington, N.C. after the Civil War and learned to read and write at a night school.

He enrolled at Shaw in 1872 and, after his graduation, became a school principal in Goldsboro, N.C. He later became the first head of the State Colored Normal School in Fayetteville (now Fayetteville State University), as well as U.S. minister to Liberia.

On their northern tour, Smith and his choir mates usually called themselves the “Wilmington Jubilee Singers,” but not always. At times, their publicity referred to them as the “Shaw Jubilee Singers” or the “North Carolina Jubilee Singers.”

After completing that tour in 1874, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers vanished from the historical record for a time. They may have disbanded. They may have simply performed less often.

Or, they may have only sung in local churches and African American meeting halls where the white press did not notice or report on their concerts.

Crossing the Atlantic

Then, a couple years later, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers resurfaced again. This time they were in the United Kingdom. Sometime in the second half of 1876, they had sailed to England on a fundraising tour on behalf of Shaw and another important African American college, the Biddle Memorial Institute (now Johnson C. Smith University) in Charlotte, N.C.

I don’t know how many members of the original Wilmington Jubilee Singers remained in this group of singers. The surviving records are sketchy. The singers may have been largely the same, or they may have only featured a core of singers from the earlier group.

It’s even possible this was a whole new iteration of the chorus, though of the group’s singers that I have been able to trace, they all still had roots in the enslaved communities of eastern N.C.

The Music Peculiar to Slave Life

To follow the Wilmington Jubilee Singers once they reached Great Britain, the British Newspaper Archive was indispensable.

The first British newspaper in which I found mention of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers was the December 2nd, 1876 edition of the Chorley Standard & District Advertiser, in Lancashire. The notice announced the group performing a “Sacred Service of Song” at Guild Hall, in Preston, a textile city 70 miles east of London.

The newspaper explained, “These singers were all born in slavery and their songs are a faithful rendering of the Music peculiar to slave life.”

From Lancashire, the band of black troubadours traveled across England.

Interior of Colston Hall, Bristol, where the Wilmington Jubilee Singers sang 3 concerts in March 1877.

Interior at Colston Hall in Bristol, England, where the Wilmington Jubilee Singers sang 3 concerts in March 1877. From The Illustrated London News, 23 Oct. 1873. In addition to the Wilmington Jubilee Singers, the Hall has hosted operas, wrestling matches and a very young and relatively unknown rock & roll band from Liverpool called The Beatles.

In the early part of 1877, they performed concerts in cities and small towns throughout Derbyshire, Wiltshire and Cornwall.

According to the Western Daily Press in Bristol, they sang three nights at the city’s Colston Hall in March. They returned for another series of concerts in early May, while also making time to sing for the Prince of Wales in Cirencester, in Gloucestershire.

Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep

After a May concert in Bristol, the Western Daily Press listed some of the hymns that the Wilmington Jubilee Singers sang. They included “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?,” one of my favorite Isaac Watts hymns.

Historical records show that liberated slaves in New Bern, N.C. sang that hymn at a celebration on the second anniversary of Pres. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation near the end of the Civil War.

At that time, and in that context, the hymn’s message was more than a little astonishing.

The song beseeches God: no matter what trials we have endured in the past, or how much we have lost, don’t deny us the chance to struggle and suffer more so that we might show ourselves deserving of freedom in this life, and salvation in the next.

Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follow’r of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?

Must I be carried to the skies
On flow’ry beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?

Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.

 

Today Mrs. Willard's hymn's title makes for a popular sailor's tattoo.

Mrs. Willard’s hymn has also long inspired sailors’ tattoos. This tattoo is by legendary, mid-20th century tattoo artist Norman Cousins (Sailor Jerry).

In Bristol, the Singers also sang another of my favorite hymns, a sailors’ hymn that a Troy, N.Y. women’s rights activist and educator named Emma Hart Willard penned before the Civil War.

It is a hymn that, when one considers the history of the Middle Passage and the fates of so many of the enslaved upon the seas, gains an unimaginably greater power.

The hymn is called “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep.”

Rock’d in the cradle of the deep 
I lay me down in peace to sleep; 
Secure I rest upon the wave 
For thou oh Lord, hast power to save. 

I know thou wilt not slight my call, 
For thou dost mark the sparrow’s fall! 
And calm and peaceful is my sleep 

Rock’d in the cradle of the deep, 
And calm and peaceful is my sleep 
Rock’d in the cradle of the deep.

And such the trust that still were mine 
Tho’ stormy winds swept o’er the brine. 
Or though the tempest’s fiery breath 
Roused me from sleep to wreck and death! 

In ocean cave still safe with thee, 
The germ of immortality; 
And calm and peaceful is my sleep 

Rock’d in the cradle of the deep, 
And calm and peaceful is my sleep 
Rock’d in the cradle of the deep.

As much as I like the hymn, I find its music, which Mrs. Willard did not write, wholly unsupportive of the feeling in her lyrics—and I wonder if, and how, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers re-arranged the music to reflect their own musical sensibilities and their own history.

“Pretty, though strange to our ears”

In Guernsey, a newspaper called The Star gave a good sense of what the group’s typical concert was like. On Sept. 20, 1877, The Star reported a series of shows that drew large crowds.

The newspaper’s reviewer wrote: “The melodies were on the whole pretty, though strange to our ears, and the piano parts were given with a softness and attention to time that rendered them most beautiful.”

The concert began with a quartet, accompanied by one of the band’s soloists, Ida Washington. They sang a hymn called “He Calls,” and then Ms. Washington and Charles Washington, who I believe was her father, sang a hymn.

After the Washingtons’ duet, the full choir sang several other hymns. They concluded with the Doxology. During the group’s intermissions, two of the band’s members talked about their lives in slavery and the need to support African American education in the post-war South.

Nothing Mawkish or Sentimental

The reviews were interesting. A number of the more pious reviewers found the Wilmington Jubilee Singers a welcome relief from the minstrel singers from America that were so popular in Great Britain at that time.

Those acts tended to deal in the bawdy and farcical, as well as in unflattering racial caricatures. Many sang songs that were nostalgic of the Old South.

In contrast, after the Wilmington Jubilee Singers gave a concert in Derbyshire, a reviewer for the Buxton Herald found “nothing mawkish or sentimental in the singing.”

Overall the black singers met enthusiastic audiences. “Their voices are exceedingly rich and powerful, and the manner in which they are sung make the entertainment very enjoyable,” wrote a reviewer at the Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph, in Jersey, on Sept. 29, 1877.

Writing in the Falkirk Herald, another reviewer described a local minister’s introduction of the singers at Linlithgow’s town hall in the winter of 1878. The minister had heard them on a previous visit to Linlithgow.

“He… spoke of the influence they had upon himself personally, and thought they were calculated [to give] an everlasting impression upon any one hearing them.”

A Joyful Noise unto the Lord
Linlithgow Town Hall, where the Wilmington Jubilee Singers gave at least 2 concerts in the 1870s.

A modern view of Linlithgow Town Hall, Scotland, where the Wilmington Jubilee Singers gave at least 2 concerts in 1877-1878.

That night in Linlithgow, the Singers began the concert by singing the 100th Psalm:

        Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.

        Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.

        Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

        Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

        For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

 Then they sang several hymns, including “The Lord’s Prayer” and the old spiritual, “Steal Away to Jesus.”

Michelle Williams and Durham, N.C. gospel legend Shirley Caesar sing a powerful modern rendition of "Steal Away to Jesus" on Williams' 2002 album Heart to Yours.

Michelle Williams and Durham, N.C. gospel diva Shirley Caesar sing a powerful modern rendition of “Steal Away to Jesus” on Williams’ 2002 album Heart to Yours. You can check it out on YouTube.

 

         My Lord, He calls me,

         He calls me by the thunder;

         The trumpet sounds within my soul,

         I ain’t got long to stay here.

 

         Steal away, steal away,

         Steal away to Jesus!

         Steal away, steal away home,

         I ain’t got long to stay here. 

 

“A Peculiarity about the Words and the Melodies”

Not every reviewer was as appreciative of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers as the minister in Linlithgow.

In Guernsey, for instance, The Star’s reviewer was a bit at sea, having expected, apparently, something closer to English sacred music. “The familiar manner in which the sacred name is mentioned, and sacred subjects are handled, bordering in our opinion somewhat on the irreverent, is not always pleasant,” he wrote.

“Added to this the tunes are to our idea more fitted for profane than sacred songs,” he added.

Yet the reviewer still enjoyed the performance. “The quiet and reverent manner of the singers atones greatly for this shortcoming,” he wrote.

Though apparently well intentioned, other reviewers, bless their hearts, could not hear the music without white supremacy and colonialism getting in the way.

After one concert, for instance, a correspondent for the Dundee Courier wrote, “There was a peculiarity about the words and the melodies which is only to be found in the vocal effusions of a simple and primitive race such as the Negro.”

That reviewer also observed: “The audience sat entranced during the whole evening, and testified their appreciation by enthusiastic applause.”

That was one of the press accounts that made me wonder what the experience of performing in the United Kingdom was like for the singers, and what it meant to them, and what the audience that “sat entranced” took away from hearing them.

“The Negro Question”

Inevitably, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers found themselves a part of the political issues that were important in Great Britain at the time. One such occasion was in Bristol in 1877. Upon their arrival in the seaport, the local Templars—the Independent Order of Good Templars— hosted them, feted them and made them honorary members.

This was not insignificant. At the time, the Templars—a fraternal society grounded in abstinence and temperance— were in the throes of a bitter split over how to respond to a recent decision by Templars in the U.S. to have separate lodges for blacks and whites.

By welcoming the Wilmington Jubilee Singers so enthusiastically, the Templars in Bristol were making a strong statement on what they called the “negro question.”

To Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland

Throughout 1877 and into 1878, the tour continued: Gloucestershire, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Guernsey, North Yorkshire, Jersey, East Sussex, Stirlingshire, Cumbria.

Then, in February 1878, they moved on to Scotland: Sterlingshire, Fife, Clackmannanshire, Angus and Edinburgh. They returned to Lancashire in April and stayed on tour in England the rest of that spring and early summer, with one more foray into Scotland as well.

That summer the Singers finished their grand tour. However, it was not the last of their performances in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps they returned to the U.S. after that first long tour in 1878, but if they did, they soon crossed the Atlantic again for several briefer tours.

Another possibility is that they never left the United Kingdom at all. They may have made new lives in England and only re-united occasionally to go on the road again.

The Beinecke Library at Yale has a small, but interesting collection of pamphlets, books and clippings related to the Wilmington Jubilee Singers, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other Jubilee Singers in the period after the Civil War.

The Beinecke Library at Yale has a small, but interesting collection of rare pamphlets, books and newspaper clippings related to the Wilmington Jubilee Singers, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other Jubilee Singers in the period after the Civil War. Photo, courtesy of the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

At any rate, the Singers continued to tour occasionally: in Wales in the winter of 1878-79, Northern Ireland a year later and England again in May 1880.

I found the first full listing of the group’s singers in a newspaper ad for one of those shorter concert tours. According to a Londonderry newspaper, the group featured 8 singers at that time.

They included sopranos Matilda Giles and Ida Washington, a “Miss Bisehoff” who sang soprano and accompanied the group on piano, contraltos Mary White and Amelia Stokes, tenor Charles Washington and basses Peter Stokes and William Jones.

Passage Home

Without doubt, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers had their share of ups and downs in Britain. Judging from the BNA newspapers, they often had financial difficulties.

In fact, we do not even know if their concerts ever made more than their expenses in in the United Kingdom.

In their darkest hours, the Singers even stopped talking about Shaw and the Biddle Memorial Institute. They instead confessed to audiences that they aspired only to raise enough to pay for passage home.

There were other difficulties, too. Once they canceled a concert over a dispute with their manager, a minister from Brighton. He departed the group that night and apparently left the singers almost penniless.

Early photo of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. First organized at in 1871, the group is still singing today.

Early photo of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. First organized at in 1871, the group pioneered the close harmony, a cappella style of singing slave spirituals and gospel songs that other Jubilee Singers later adopted. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are still singing today.

In addition, a few correspondents to BNA newspapers accused the group of profiting from the reputation of a much more famous group of African American choristers, the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Raising funds for Fisk University, a black institution in Nashville, Tenn., the Fisk Jubilee Singers had toured Great Britain to great acclaim in 1873.

That charge was not without merit. On several occasions, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers’ manager ran advertisements that gave the impression that the two groups were one and the same.

The Last Concerts

After 1880, the fortunes of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers grew more obscure. I found few other references to them in the BNA. The historical newspapers at the British Library show only that they gave a single concert in the United Kingdom in 1882, two more in 1883 and a few others in 1888.

The last notice of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers that I found in the BNA came from Fife, Scotland, on March 14, 1888. On that date, the Fife Herald observed that the group, only four in number at the time, gave three shows, including one for children.

That, as far as I can tell, was the last time that the Wilmington Jubilee Singers shared “the music peculiar to slave life” with the public or told stories about slavery and its aftermath. It was the end of 20 years of bearing witness.

 

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