Fisk University’s annual Jubilee Day Convocation is being live-streamed for the first time this year. The event, which starts at 10 a.m., will include a performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and a speech from musician and law professor Angeline Butler.
In 1871, the original Fisk Jubilee Singers set off on a concert tour to raise funds for the university. They left campus on Oct. 6, now known as Jubilee Day in an annual campus celebration. It also serves as the debut appearance of the newest group of Jubilee Singers, since students rotate out of the group when they graduate.
The group’s original tour in 1871 was difficult. They performed in small towns that had never heard young Black singers perform in a way that did not sound like a so-called “minstrel show.” And early funds raised were donated to the victims of the Chicago fire.
Eventually, in addition to raising funds, the Fisk Jubilee Singers raised the profile of Negro spirituals as concert music, leading to invitations to perform at the World Peace Festival in 1872 and Ulysses S. Grant’s White House. A subsequent tour of Europe raised the funds for Jubilee Hall on Fisk’s campus, as well as earning Nashville’s nickname of “Music City” from Queen Victoria.
This year’s keynote speaker, Angeline Butler, is a Fisk graduate, playwright and civil rights activist. Now a law faculty member at John Jay College, Butler’s life experience ranges from performing in the New York Metropolitan Opera, performing with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, organizing a sit-in in 1960, acting as a coordinator in the Freedom Rides, and co-founding SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). After studying music at Fisk and later attending the Juilliard School, she went to UCLA and Columbia University.
The spirituals that will be performed are Talk About A Child, arranged by William Dawson, and Walk Together Children, arranged by Moses Hogan. The commemorative event ends with visits to the grave sites of the four original members of the Jubilee Singers who are buried in Nashville.
Like many choral ensembles, the Fisk Jubilee Singers have been taking exceptional precautions to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rehearsal time has been limited, and a larger space with more physical distance than usual has been in use. This makes learning to blend voices together extra challenging. But in figuring out how to come together, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continue a 149-year tradition of overcoming extraordinary obstacles.