Culture  /  Narrative

How the Negro Spiritual Changed American Popular Music—And America Itself

In 1871, the Fisk University singers embarked on a tour that introduced white Americans to a Black sound that would reshape the nation.

The year 1871 was a crucible. Six years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the true terms of peace were still being negotiated—especially insofar as freedpeople were concerned. By 1871, Republicans in Congress had managed to have the states ratify the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The 11 rebel states had been readmitted to the Union. Buoyed by the votes of Black men, five Black representatives held congressional seats. Congress had created a Department of Justice and given it a mandate to destroy the Ku Klux Klan. Fisk and dozens of other institutions, many of them supported by the Freedmen’s Bureau, had sprung up to educate Black students of all ages. They formed the nucleus of what we know today as historically Black colleges and universities. (My father recently served as the president of Fisk.)

But the revolution was faltering. Many northern white Republicans had grown weary of the constant federal oversight required to protect the rights of Black people in the former Confederate states. Their attention, and the nation’s, had turned west, to the country’s expansion and the bloody dispossession of the Indigenous people who lived there. The Freedmen’s Bureau would come to a formal end in 1872, but its efforts were already effectively exhausted. Meanwhile, former Confederates tallied rolling successes in their “redemption” of southern governments—restoring themselves to power through violence and fraud.

It was in this environment that Fisk University’s choir—10 students, ranging in age from 14 to their early 20s—took to the road. Several singers had been born into slavery; one, Benjamin Holmes, had read the Emancipation Proclamation aloud to those imprisoned with him in a slave pen in 1863.

They’d undertaken their journey in order to save their fledgling school. Fisk University had been founded in 1866 with the support of the American Missionary Association, an abolitionist organization that turned its energies to educating freedpeople after the war. But, with the primary objective of abolition met, donations dwindled. Fisk was one of several normal schools and universities that the AMA was now struggling to support. Campus conditions were miserable. Sheppard recalled in her diary that, in cold weather, students shivered through the night in substandard housing, with barely any protection from the elements. They subsisted on food that was nearly inedible. The situation at Fisk was a microcosm of Black life in the South: unprecedented promise and potential oblivion living under the same crumbling roof.