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African Lives in Northern England

Fisk Jubilee Singers

Picture Credit; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, USA via Wikimedia Commons

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the first African-American musicians to gain international recognition. The choir was composed entirely of students, most of whom were newly freed slaves. It was formed in 1871 to raise funds for Fisk University, the black college founded in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee. Their early repertoire consisted mainly of negro spirituals, which many white northern audiences were hearing for the first time. After a rough start, the first US tours eventually raised $40,000 for Fisk University. In 1873 the choir toured Great Britain and Europe for the first time. They returned to Europe two years later, touring from May 1875 to July 1878. This tour raised an estimated $150,000 for the university, which was used to construct Fisk’s first permanent building. Named Jubilee Hall, it still stands today.  

The choir visited Newcastle upon Tyne in November 1873, as part of a tour of the North East. They sang in the Town Hall on 13 November and again on 15 November.

A century and a half later, Vox Holloway teamed up with the Hackney Empire choir to tell the Singers’ inspiring story. Working from diaries, historical records and the choir’s own songbook, composer Harvey Brough and librettist Justin Butcher  reconstructed their struggle to win through racial abuse and physical hardship to international acclaim.  The performance was so popular that it will be brought back to the Empire a second time when the theatre can re-open, and is now available on CD. 

The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Newcastle Daily Journal, 6 November 1873, p. 1, available through the British Newspaper Archive,

Wikipedia entry

In the future, don’t forget your past