Review by: Marva Griffin Carter, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Music, Georgia State University - January 30, 2012
Fisk University, named after the Civil War general, Clinton B. Fisk, was one of the early schools established in Nashville, Tennessee at the dawn of the emancipation of African Americans. The American Missionary Association (AMA) founded the institution and eventually assumed the official sponsorship of The Singers, who became ambassadors for the university as well as for the AMA. “Tell Them We Are Singing for Jesus” builds upon the Fisk Jubilee scholarship of Doug Seroff and Andrew Ward, among others. Borrowing from historian Joe Richardson’s “Christian Reconstruction”
concept, Toni Anderson describes the AMA’s mission as a combination of Education and Christianity, sending “missionary-teachers into the South bringing benevolent relief, the textbook, the Bible, and the ‘New England [Victorian] Way’ in hopes of educating, elevating, and evangelizing freedmen.” (xii) The Jubilee Singers needed to embrace Protestant ethics, values, and morals in order to effectively assimilate into mainstream society.
This book is a suspenseful well-written narrative that details the AMA’s “machine” which propelled the legendary success of Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers. A nine-membered troupe of former slaves and freedmen, the musical ensemble was formed by the white talented treasurer, George Leonard White who conducted three fundraising campaign tours from 1871 through 1878. The group concertized throughout the northern United States and Europe before the higher echelons of society, including President Ulysses Grant and Queen Victoria, acquiring $150,000 for the erection of Jubilee Hall on their campus.
Toni Anderson uses the individual voices of The Singers to tell the Jubilee Story whenever possible, through their letters, diaries, memoirs, and other primary sources. She writes with sensitivity and identification with her subject, as a white vocal performer/teacher herself, who has successfully taught and toured with music students in a historically Black college for many years. She begins her eight chapters by describing the birth of the AMA, Fisk University, and the Jubilee Singers. The national and international concert tours are detailed with a focus on their two-fold purpose of Christian evangelizing as well as music making. Special attention is given to their participation in Dwight L. Moody’s revivals throughout England and Scotland. The reader is informed of the “infinite troubles” caused by internal strife among the group members, as well as their external encounters with racial discrimination in housing, dining, and transportation.
This account is well-presented and illustrated within 300 pages and an appendix of brief biographies of The Singers. Interestingly, no one from the original ensemble graduated from Fisk. Only America Robinson, who joined the company’s third tour in 1875, graduated with a college diploma from the university. One could argue, however,
that the troupe’s national and international travels, and social experiences with royalty, dignitaries, and people of all walks of life may have far outweighed a diploma from Fisk in post-Civil War America.
Toni Anderson has published a significant aspect of the Fisk Jubilee Story. Without the contributions of the AMA to the ensemble, there would not have been lengthy tours, donated dollars, and Jubilee Hall. Had The Singers not been “singing for Jesus” with their never-before-heard acculturated Negro spirituals, the white public would have assumed that the troupe was representative of the stereotypic minstrel show. The book reminds the reader of how rich a reservoir of Fisk memorabilia still remains unpublished of letters, scrapbooks, diaries, and the like. This splendid story should be required reading for all who seek to better understand this American treasure known as The Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Review by: Alisha Lola Jones, History of Education Quarterly - January 27, 2011
Toni P. Anderson's “Tell Them We Are Singing For Jesus”: The Original Fisk Jubilee Singers“explores how the ideals of the AMA's [American Missionary Association] Christian Reconstruction worldview governed every aspect of the Jubilee Singers' historic seven years of fundraising campaigns (1871–1878)” (p. xii). In 1866, the AMA founded Fisk University to cultivate freed women and men into educated Christians. Anderson notes that the AMA's agenda was informed by the Victorian ideals that made “social respectability and acceptable personhood in the dominant white society … the benchmarks for whether or not blacks ‘fit’ in the mainstream of American life” (p. 1). Five years later, Fisk was an ailing university that could not survive on funding provided by the AMA and the Freedmen's Bureau. A white AMA missionary, Fisk treasurer George Leonard White, was so burdened with the details of the school's money woes that he strategized about fundraising. After gaining the support of students and campus leaders such as Ella Shepherd, White convinced students to allow him to transform the music they made in their leisure into a cultural product able to resurrect Fisk's finances.
When the Fisk Jubilee Singers embarked upon their first tour in 1871, the AMA did not support their musical initiative. Anderson probes the complex tensions created by White's defiance of the organization in pursuing the Fisk Jubilee Singers tours. Abolitionists were aware that in spite of percolating hostilities, both white and black missionaries persevered in the field in their effort to spread the Christian Reconstruction ideals “to educate, elevate and evangelize” (p. 8). To the AMA, the Fisk Jubilee Singers tour performed slave songs that signified the pervasive blackface minstrelsy show stereotypes that miseducated the American public about the black experience. Because the AMA viewed the students as co-laborers who embodied the promise of post-Civil War missionary work, they were protective of all aspects of AMA public relations. Thus, they did not want their movement to be impeded by controversy.
Ironically, the barriers with which the Fisk Jubilee Singers contended throughout the tours were found in trying to harmonize their presentation with the AMA's ideals. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers were reluctant to perform their slave songs publicly because the repertoire represented their former fettered lives. It took time for them to create a presentation that reflected their liberated and progressive present as freed women and men. Eventually, they emerged onto the world's stage, performing Negro spirituals with unprecedented precision and dignity. The AMA did not endorse the Jubilee Singers tours in their rhetoric and literature until the musical group received critical acclaim and they found the performances the Fisk troupe offered were wholly different from the popular minstrel shows that the AMA opposed.
In “Tell Them We Are Singing For Jesus,” Anderson brilliantly considers the extent to which White and the Jubilee Singers negotiated their inter-cultural experiences as a mixed group of white AMA leaders, a white artistic director, and black student leaders upholding the Christian Reconstruction aims. She acknowledges that the AMA literature about Christian education is laced with racially charged rhetoric indicative of the time. Such perception and language, however, should not distract from the AMA's positive achievements. For example, Anderson illustrates her previously coined “dialogue of respect” methodology of white teachers in Historically Black Colleges and Universities through White's public acknowledgment of the student-leaders work during the tours. “For his part, White shared the praise with the young singers in his company: ‘We have had a fearful struggle—the ‘Jubilee Singers’ ought to be immortal in name. They stood the test nobly’” (p. 54). White's positive reinforcement of the singers' sacrifice, in addition to the organizers' compensation of the singers, was essential in fostering a dialogue of respect with the formerly enslaved students.
It is precisely the student labor concept that I would have liked to see interrogated more in the book. How were the singers reintegrated into student life? What were the ways in which freedmen (who shared the memory of involuntary servitude) casualties of “missionary work” for the AMA Christian Reconstruction movement to educate black students? The students were skeptical about their organizers' capacity to advocate for them, be it financial, appropriate vacation time, or the completion of their education. As Anderson notes, “Any suspicion of white domination or hint of unfair practices did not sell with the company members … and brought to the fore questions of control” (p. 144). They had to carve out their own understanding of balanced student life and their dedication to Fisk school spirit. Upon evaluation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers 1871–1878 tour rosters, there were notable singers contracted by the Fisk Jubilee Singer company who never completed their education (Ella Shepherd) or enrolled in a Fisk program (Frederick J. Loudin). What does this suggest about the expectation and execution of the AMA's aims?
Anderson's contribution challenges us to recall and reimagine that the tours were fraught with inner turbulence. Fisk was one of many colleges training black freedmen to be independent American citizens in post-Civil War America. Scholarship on the Fisk Jubilee Singers has focused on the heroic narrative of the black students' self-sufficiency, their musical legacy, dignified image, and proactive fundraising in higher education, endorsed by a white school administrator, only to ignore an important teachable moment. This book adds dimension to the investment that white and black Americans had in the education of freedmen. Such an investment required “dialogues of respect,” though imperfect, about portrayals of African Americans that would properly teach America about the humanity of its darker siblings. We learn that the Fisk Jubilee Singers' negotiation of inner turbulence among allies is as informative as the hostilities they quieted on the world stage.