Black History Month & Music: Part 5 of 12

The founding of higher education institutions for African-Americans played a significant role in the development and advancement of the Black population. Founded mostly in the 1800s, some pre-Civil War, most post, what is now referred to as an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) has produced a number of individuals that have had a significant impact on culture. For example: Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State), Reverend Jesse Jackson (North Carolina A&T), Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse), Justice Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University), Toni Morrison (Howard University), Ed Bradley (Cheyney University), Spike Lee (Morehouse), and Andrew Young (Howard University).

As of today (February 2010), 105 HBCUs are in operation. Their current perceptions are mixed, at best, and the state of America’s universities is not necessarily the point herein.

Either way, HBCUs are important, and filled a large and important education gap at their foundings.

From a book entitled Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 1976-1994, here’s a brief history:

“The story of HBCUs began prior to the Civil War. The earliest of these colleges was formed during the 1830s (Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) to counter the prevailing practice of limiting or prohibiting altogether the education of blacks, most of whom were still slaves. Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce College in Ohio were the only two black schools established in the 1850s by blacks in their effort toward self-education. However, it was not until after the Civil War that the federal government (through the Freedmen’s Bureau), the black community, and various philanthropic organizations began intensive, organized efforts to educate the former slaves. Many of the schools founded during this period were primarily religious schools such as Edward Waters College in Florida, Fisk University in Tennessee, and Talladega College in Alabama.”

Which brings us to arguably one of the most important schools (not only from HBCUs, but all colleges and universities) to the progression of music: Fisk University.

Founded in 1866 in Nashville, Fisk University (still) gives us the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. According to Fisk’s website,

“Fisk’s world-famous Jubilee Singers originated as a group of traveling students who set out from Nashville in 1871, taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, praying that through their music they could somehow raise enough money to keep open the doors of their debt-ridden school. The singers struggled at first, but before long, their performances so electrified audiences that they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, moving to tears audiences that included William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillip, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria. The Jubilee Singers introduced much of the world to the spiritual as a musical genre – and in the process raised funds that preserved their University…The contemporary Jubilee Singers perform in a University convocation – and conclude the day’s ceremonies with a pilgrimage to the grave sites of the original singers, where once again, the old songs are sung at the burial places of their first performers.”

Listen to the early-1900s version of The Fisk Jubilee Singers (and Quartette) on Document Records’ The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups Vol. 5 (1911-1926) on www.lala.com. According to Arwulf Arwulf on AllMusic.com, the first  five tracks were “recorded onto Edison blue Ambersol phonograph cylinders on December 27, 1911 by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartette.”

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