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!
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 Wilmington Jubilee 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 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.
This is a revised and updated version of an essay that I first posted here on Dec. 17, 2017. The new material comes mainly from research that I did earlier this year at the Library of Congress and from a new book by Dr. Sandra Jean Graham at Babson College.
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.
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 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.
First, I found a group performing by that name in a stage production of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Theatre Comique on Broadway in February of 1876.
Female minstrels, the can-can and cane brake warblers
According to Sandra Jean Graham’s marvelous Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment History, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers were performing with an “Uncle Tom company” on New York stages early in 1876.
On and around Broadway, they appeared in venues as stately as Steinway Hall and as bawdy and raucous as the Theatre Comique and the Chateau Mabille Varieties.
At Steinway Hall the singers performed a “grand sacred concert” on February 13, 1876. Among other hymns, they sang “Turn Back Pharoah’s Army” and “He Rolled and Rocked Them in his Arms.”
Yet at the more sensational music halls, they performed side by side with white minstrels, burlesque acts and, to quote Professor Graham, “female minstrels, the can-can and lots of `naughty but nice’ ladies.”
They were, she quotes theater historian George Odell, “reputable people in questionable surroundings,” doing what it took to make a living in hard times for black artists and performers.
At the time, their manager, Harry York, advertised that the Wilmington Jubilee Singers would do just about anything: “minstrelsy, variety, sketch, Sunday sacred concerts, duets, Irish biz, etc.”
Later that same year, the singers crossed the Atlantic and began a tour of the United Kingdom.
Evidently organized by a sketchy minstrel-type manager (who quickly deserted them in England), they had 15 members when they arrived overseas.
Handbills for their tour make the group’s performances sound like a dizzying mishmash of minstrel review, variety show and sacred music concert. One of the group’s members is listed as a comedian, another as a “bone soloist,” another as a “cane brake warbler” and yet another as a “plantation oddity.”
Yet others, on the other hand, are described as “the renowned tenor” and the “sweet-voiced Creole alto songstress.”
The next manager of their British tour, Sam Hogue of Liverpool, was best known for his black-faced minstrelsy acts (which were very popular in the U.S. and Great Britain at that time).
Hogue was evidently no less sketchy: he apparently intended that the Wilmington Jubilee Singers would shadow the much more famous Fisk Jubilee Singers, who had toured in Great Britain the previous year. Seeking to profit from their fame, he modeled the group’s concert posters and newspaper ads after the Fisk group’s.
How long it took the Wilmington Jubilee Singers to put the minstrel and variety show aspects of their concerts behind them is a little unclear, but it seems to have happened relatively fast.
By the end of 1876, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers were embracing their more reverent demeanor and singing the gospel songs and hymns that would remain standard for the rest of the group’s career.
By then, they were also telling their audiences that they were 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.
In addition, the group’s new manager was a white Congregationalist minister from Bristol, England, with a commitment to racial equality. (We will meet him later in this story.) I’m not sure when he took over management of the group’s British tour, but possibly as early as the end of 1876 and definitely by the summer of 1877.
I don’t know how many, if any, members of the original Wilmington Jubilee Singers remained in the group of singers that performed in New York and then toured in Great Britain.
The surviving records are not at all clear on that point. The singers that toured the northern states and Canada to raise funds for Shaw and the group of singers that traveled to Great Britain may have been largely the same, or they may have only featured a core of singers from the earlier group.
It’s even possible the singers that went to Great Britain represented a whole new iteration of the chorus, though of the group’s singers that I have been able to trace, most 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.
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.
In Cross the Water Blues: African American Music in Europe, Neil A. Wynn even indicates that the Wilmington Jubilee Singers crossed the North Sea and performed in the Netherlands that April of 1877, between their two series of concerts in Bristol.
Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep
After one of the May concerts 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.
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.
As we saw earlier, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers had advertised their ability to do that kind of music when they were still performing in New York City.
In contrast, when the later version of 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
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.”
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. The Templers were an international temperance order that, at least in Great Britain, held egalitarian ideals with respect to race and gender.
At the time, however, the Templars 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.” The Templars in the U.S. and also in many parts of England might put race and white supremacy ahead of brotherhood and temperance. The Templars in Bristol, at least, would not.
“Dust beneath the white man’s feet”
The Templars actually figure into the history of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers in an important way. For a large part of their first tour in Great Britain, their manager was a Templar evangelist.
That manager was an English Congregationalist minister named Henry William Parsons. He apparently first learned about the singing group when he made a missionary trip to North Carolina on behalf of the Templars late in 1876.
According to correspondence and diaries preserved at the Library of Congress, the Rev. Parsons arrived in New Bern, N.C., on Oct. 28, 1876. He was hosted by the head of the state’s African American Templar lodges, Edward R. Dudley (1840-1913).
The son of a local woman named Sarah Pasteur who had been a slave before the Civil War, Dudley was a cooper by trade and had been one of the state’s first African American legislators between 1870 and 1874.
In addition to spreading the Templar gospel at churches and lodge meetings in New Bern, the Rev. Parsons helped to bolster African American Templar lodges in Kinston, Tarboro, Goldsboro, Wilson, Fayetteville, Lumberton, Rocky Mount, Lincolnton, Salisbury, Statesville, Lexington, Thomasville, Charlotte, High Point, Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh.
From his first day in New Bern, he faced white resistance to his work with the African American Templars.
For one thing, when he was in New Bern he stayed in the home of an African American couple and preached at black churches. At that time, local white leaders considered such actions to be reprehensible acts of race betrayal.
As a consequence, Parsons wrote his wife from New Bern, “I have entirely shut myself out of association with my own race.” Even his own denomination’s church in the town shunned him.
On the other hand, he gained important firsthand knowledge of African American life in North Carolina while he stayed with his black hosts in the town.
“The persons in whose shanty I am staying have both been slaves,” he wrote home. “The wife was sold once for $1,250 dollars. That is about 250 pounds—and the husband was sold twice. They make me weep when they tell me of their hardships in days of slavery. They have only been free about eleven years.”
As the Rev. Parsons traveled across North Carolina, white leaders eyed him suspiciously.
After whites threatened his life, he got into the habit of having African American men escort him in public whenever possible.
The most dangerous episode he faced was in Charlotte, where the chief of police and a mob of “forty or fifty southerners armed with bludgeons” came after him. That night he slept in the woods outside of town due to his fear that they would come to his hotel and kill him.
After that incident, Rev. Parsons wrote his wife: “The poor negro here is treated like dust beneath the white man’s feet. They think no more of killing a black man than they do of shooting a dog and if they chose they would kill every white man who has any sympathy whatever for the African race.”
The man that finally gave him shelter that night was a white Presbyterian minister named Stephen Mattoon. Dr. Mattoon was the founding president of the Biddle Memorial Institute (now Johnson C. Smith College), a historically black college in Charlotte.
When he finally reached Raleigh near the end of his trip, Rev. Parsons found another gracious host, the Rev. Henry Martin Tupper.
The Rev. Tupper was the founding president of Shaw University that I mentioned earlier.
Rev. Tupper gave him accommodations at Shaw, helped him to organize a student chapter of the Templars and encouraged local black ministers to invite him to address their congregations.
The Henry William Parsons Correspondence and Diaries at the Library of Congress do not indicate how the Rev. Parsons became acquainted with the Wilmington Jubilee Singers. By the time he visited North Carolina, they were already performing under the management of some of their less reputable managers in Great Britain.
However, the timing of his visit to North Carolina and his management of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers only a few months later back in Great Britain cannot be a coincidence.
Also, as I noted above, the Jubilee Singers often claimed that they were raising funds for the Biddle Memorial Institute and Shaw.
For those reasons, it seems likely that the Rev. Parsons’ experiences with the leaders of the Biddle Memorial Institute and Shaw while he was in North Carolina led somehow to his work with the Wilmington Jubilee Singers in Great Britain.
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, more likely possibility is that they never left the United Kingdom at all. They may have all made new lives in England and only re-united occasionally to go on the road again.
We do know that at least one member of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers stayed in Great Britain.
In a very interesting book called Black Americans in Victorian Britain, the English historian Jeffrey Green tells the story of one of the group’s members who made his home in Great Britain for the rest of his life.
That singer’s name was Isaac William Cisco and he had been born into slavery in or near Weldon, in Halifax County, N.C., in 1848.
According to Green’s research, Cisco married Mary Jane Turner, a singer from Ormskirk, England, in 1878. They had seven children, though lost four, and spent the last decades of their lives in Bolton, which is part of Greater Manchester in North West England.
Whether any of the singers ever returned to the U.S. or not, they 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 a 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.
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 concert tours ever made any profit when they were in the United Kingdom.
I have certainly not been able to locate any record of contributions to the Biddle Memorial Institute or Shaw University from the Wilmington Jubilee Singers’ British tour, though admittedly the archives of those institutions for that era are very incomplete.
The group’s singers may not have even made their expenses. On Jan. 10, 1878, for instance, their manager, the Rev. Parsons, wrote in his diary:
“These are trying times…. We are getting further and further in debt—and I can see no way out of it—I am now almost fully convinced that I never ought to have undertaken this work.”
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 Rev. Parsons.
Another time, in January 1878, Parsons and the group’s star soprano, Matilda Giles, got into a heated argument. It brought out his worst side. When he fired her for being “rude,” all the singers went on strike.
That was in Trent, while they were traveling between concert dates in Leicester and Macclesfield.
“I hope the Lord will help me through,” Parsons wrote in his diary a few days later. Not long after, he departed the group and left the singers almost penniless.
In addition, a few correspondents to BNA newspapers accused the group of profiting from the reputation of the 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 earlier in the 1870s.
As I mentioned above, that charge was not without merit. On many occasions, at least some of the Wilmington Jubilee Singers’ managers 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 grow more obscure in the historical record. 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.