American choral group. It was organized in October 1871 as the Fisk Singers to make fund-raising tours for the newly established Fisk University at Nashville, Tennessee, a college for freed slaves which opened barely six months after the end of the American Civil War; George L. White (1838–95), the school’s music teacher, chose nine singers and a pianist from his well-trained student choirs of former slaves. Following a concert at Columbus, Ohio, White officially named them the Jubilee Singers after the Old Testament’s ‘year of jubilee’, since all but two of them had been freed from slavery. Henry Ward Beecher, the minister of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn and a supporter of abolition, endorsed the group, and used his influence to arrange engagements for them throughout the eastern USA. Their programmes consisted mostly of four-part arrangements of spirituals, which many of the students had known as slaves, as well as anthems, operatic selections and popular ballads. They returned to Fisk six months later with enough money to purchase the 25 acres of land on which the university is sited and to pay off the school’s debts.
In June 1872 the singers were invited to appear at Patrick S. Gilmore’s Second World Peace Jubilee in Boston, which brought them national recognition; a New England tour and an invitation to sing at the White House for President Ulysses S. Grant followed. As a reorganized group of four men and seven women, they toured the British Isles in 1873–4 under the patronage of the Earl of Shaftesbury, and the money raised on that tour made possible the construction of Jubilee Hall (dedicated January 1876), the university’s first permanent building. A second European tour (1875–8) took in Scotland, the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Germany, The $150,000 raised by the group up to that time ensured the continuation and growth of the university. The singers made several appearances at the Chautauqua Assembly in New York and in 1884 began a six-year world tour.
The Jubilee Singers tradition has remained a permanent institution at Fisk University, and in 1979 the name ‘Jubilee Singers’ became a registered trademark of the university. Their fame has also led to the use by other groups of their name; the informal addition of ‘Fisk’ was made to distinguish them from their imitators. They established the black spiritual in the history of American music; the group was the first to introduce and popularize these songs among white audiences, and became a model for later black singing groups. Their spirituals were published in two contemporary editions, one compiled by Seward (with the help of Sheppard) as Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University (1872), the other by Seward and White as Jubilee Songs (1884); in 1913 a recording of the group was issued by Victor under the title Fisk University Jubilee Quartet. Important documents concerning the singers are held in the Fisk University Library’s special Jubilee Singers Archive.