Fisk Jubilee Singers: Amazing story of how freed slaves sang in Hackney 150 years ago

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1872. Picture: Library of Congress

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1872. Picture: Library of Congress - Credit: Library of Congress

In 1873 the Gazette reported that a group of freed slaves from Tennessee were coming to sing in Hackney on a tour to raise money for their university. Nearly 150 years on the story how they became beacons of the civil rights movement is being told at a stone’s throw away from where they sung. Emma Bartholomew reports.

The Gazette ad from June 11 1973

The Gazette ad from June 11 1973 - Credit: Archant

“Marvellous and heart-stirring melodies,” read the eye-catching words in a Gazette ad from 1873.

It was to let the community know that the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, would be giving a rendering of their plantation spirituals at the Downs Chapel to raise money for their “much-needed” university.

“Tickets may be obtained of Mr Surman, family grocer, corner of Lea Bridge Road, Mr Runchman, corn dealer, Kingsland, Miss Dossetor, bookseller, Dalston Lane, or Mr Coventry, printer, 400 Mare Street and at the office of this paper,” it stated.

This was about more than just choral music, however.

Composer and conductor Harvey Brough. Picture: Hannah Barton

Composer and conductor Harvey Brough. Picture: Hannah Barton - Credit: Hannah Barton

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were freed slaves who were on a mission to raise funds for the first black university in America after emancipation in 1865, and to fight for the right for all African Americans to be educated.

Hackney was one stop-off leg on their worldwide tour which saw them serenade Queen Victoria and perform spirituals in concert halls, cathedrals and churches – including the one in Hackney Downs.

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Spirituals, once referred to as Negro Spirituals, are songs that celebrate Christian values whilst conveying the hardships of slavery.

The Fisk Singers introduced the world to their “songs of sorrow” like Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Go Down Moses, and Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, which went on to become anthems of freedom and equality.

Nearly 150 years on, singers from Vox Holloway, the Hackney Empire Community Choir and the Riverside Singers will tell their story in a show at the Hackney Empire on March 24, called Freedom Song. The team behind the show including Harvey Brough – who conceived the idea and arranged and composed some of the music - will share snippets from it at a free night at Hackney Museum in Reading Lane tonight (Thu) at 6.30pm.

Harvey, a conductor and composer who has lived in Hackney for 35 years, had already wanted to do something about spirituals when gospel expert Viv Broughton gave him a book about the Fisk Singers. It contained 130 of their songs as well as their story and was a “dream gift” for Harvey.

“It meant we could tell their story while singing their music,” he told the Gazette. “They are the ones who brought spirituals to the whole world. They were work songs to keep their spirits up and it just blew the public away.

“Apparently people were so moved by it, because no one had ever heard that singing before.”

He too was moved by their inspiring story.

“They had the most shocking terrible inhumane treatment for all their lives as slaves, but there is not a word of anger or revenge in the songs,” said Harvey. “It’s about: ‘We are going to get to a better place and it will be different’.

“They overcame all that and they became quite famous, even though they were being discriminated against in the south of America. But they were noble, and got on and sang. When they came here they were treated like equals, from people like Queen Victoria to the Prime Minister Gladstone, and that’s a real thing we can celebrate.”

According to research by Sanjida Alam, a volunteer who helped put together the Roots, Rhythms & Records exhibition at Hackney Museum, people at the time would have been more familiar with the Minstrel shows staged in theatres like the Britannia and Grecian Royal than they would have been with any music of Black origin. Minstrelsy was a form of American entertainment mainly performed by white actors in blackface makeup, and is now considered highly offensive because of its tropes of black people as buffoon-like or “jolly” characters.

“They were kind of the first civil rights movement 50 years before that began,” added Harvey.

“They didn’t really campaign, but they got segregation stopped on railways because they were thrown off a train, and when the industrialist Henry Pullman heard of it he sent them a first class carriage.”

Hackney Museum recently discovered the singers visited Hackney many times.

“They went to the Ragged School and soup kitchens,” said Harvey. “There was a big Hackney connection, and it’s thrilling we are singing a stone’s throw from where they sang.

“There was a printer’s on Mare Street which sold tickets for the appearance and our tickets are being sold on Mare Street 150 years on – it’s an amazing story.”

Visitors can learn about the Fisk Jubilee Singers by visiting the Hackney Museum exhibit ‘Roots, Rhythms and Records’ which closes on March 16.