Are you familiar with the Jubilee Singers out of Fisk University? Many of them were former slaves who were formed into a touring choir. Their repertoire included popular songs of the day as well as the spirituals from their own tradition.
Their stories were heart-wrenching. We often do not really understand the realities of the harshness of the lives of those who were enslaved–how families were torn apart and what the ramifications were of life as people who had no control over their lives or the lives of their children or grandchildren. Those experiences created generational trauma–and while we may like to think that all this occurred in the distant past, it didn’t.
Our great-great-grandparents knew slaves…or former slaves…or owned slaves…or were slaves. It’s not that far back.
What was life like? Here’s the story of one of the Jubilee Singers (from a book titled “The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs” by J.B.T. Marsh, published in 1881):
Ella Sheppard was born in Nashville. Her father, while a slave, had hired his own time, and earned enough, in carrying on a livery stable, to buy his freedom, for which he paid $1,800.
His wife was owned by a family living in Mississippi, and soon after Ella’s birth she was taken back to that State. The mother was worked so hard that the baby could have little attention, and nearly died of neglect. When it was fifteen months old the father heard that it was very sick and not likely to live. Going at once to Mississippi he bought his own child for $350 and took it, ill as it was, home with him to Nashville. Afterward he tried to buy his wife, but her master refused to sell her. By and by they were entirely separated from one another. By the usage of slavery she was dead to him, and he married again.
His second wife was also a slave, and he purchased her freedom, after their marriage, for $1,300. Free papers could not be executed without going to a free State. Before it was convenient to make a visit to Ohio for this purpose, he became embarrassed in his business.
Having bought his wife, she was legally his property, and as liable to be seized and sold for his debts as his horses were. He learned one night, through a friend, that some of his creditors were intending to take her for this purpose. Without waiting an hour he hurried to an out-of-the-way railway station in the woods, some miles distant, and placed her on board the midnight train bound for Cincinnati. Soon after, he followed with his child, leaving all the rest of his property to his creditors, and beginning life anew, without a penny of his own, in Cincinnati.
In Cincinnati, Ella attended a colored school, with frequent and sometimes prolonged absences on account of poor health. When twelve or thirteen she began to take lessons in music. But the sudden death of her father by cholera, when she was but fifteen, broke up their home. All his property, of which he had again accumulated a considerable amount, including the piano he had given to Ella, went to pay the costs of unjust law-suits, and she and her stepmother were thrown on their own resources. Often they were in great straits, and more than once Ella went to festivals where her services as a pianist were in demand, but went supperless, because there was nothing in the house to eat.
A friend, who had become acquainted with her musical abilities, offered to give her a thorough course of instruction as a music teacher, with the understanding that she was to repay him from her earnings whenever she was able to. An eminent teacher of Cincinnati was engaged to give her instruction on the piano. She was the only colored pupil, and the conditions on which she was taken were, that the arrangement should be kept secret, and that she should enter the house by the back way, and receive her lessons in a secluded room upstairs, between nine and ten at night.
The failure of her patron very soon broke up these plans. Being under the necessity of earning her own living, she accepted the offer of a school in Gallatin, Tennessee. Although she had thirty-five scholars, the remuneration was so small that she was able to save but six dollars from the term’s work. With this she went to Fisk University, where she was engaged in study, and in work for self-support, for about two years, when she was appointed one of the teachers of instrumental music. She aided in drilling the choir with which Mr. White gave the cantata of “Esther,” and out of which the Jubilee Singers were organized. As the skillful pianist of the company, she has been with it in all its travels.
This is but one story. Multiply it by the thousands of individuals held in slavery…and we can begin to get an understanding of how the gifts, hopes, and dreams of individuals were impacted…and how our country has been impacted…and how important it is to know all of our history.