The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2016. Photo by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley
(RNS) — A century and a half ago, nine young men and women embarked on a trip from Fisk University, establishing a tradition of singing spirituals that both funded their Nashville, Tennessee, school and introduced the musical genre to the world.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, based at the historically Black university founded by the abolitionist American Missionary Association and later tied to the United Church of Christ, started traveling 150 years ago on Oct. 6, 1871. They since have continued to sing so-called slave songs such as “Down by the Riverside” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and stood on stages from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Musical director Paul Kwami has led the group since 1994 and sang with it when he was a Fisk student in the 1980s. Then and now he views the songs as not only expressions of the religious beliefs of enslaved people, but also of the original singers and the ones who continue to sing today.
“There are songs like ‘Ain’t-a That Good News,’ which is a song that talks about having a crown in heaven, having a robe in heaven,” said Kwami, a member of a nondenominational Full Gospel church in Nashville. “Well, they’ve never been to heaven, but then they’re singing about heaven — that’s an expression of faith.”
Kwami, a native of Ghana, in West Africa, talked with Religion News Service about how the ensemble began, who should sing spirituals and which of the songs are his favorites.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Jubilee Hall at Fisk University on Oct. 29, 2020. Photo by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers won their first Grammy in 2020 for an album that celebrates almost a century and a half of music. What does that say about the endurance of the group and the music that they have sung for so long?
The album was actually produced on the (university’s) 150th anniversary. But then, of course, it is the Fisk Jubilee Singers who won the Grammy, which actually makes me realize that people still recognize who the Fisk Jubilee Singers are. And people still appreciate the music. Additionally, people realize Fisk Jubilee Singers are artists and do not limit themselves to just Negro spirituals. There’s versatility in our choice of music when we have celebrations.
How do you define spirituals, and differentiate them from other forms of African American music sung in Black churches and beyond?
The Negro spirituals are songs that were created by the slaves during their time of slavery. But when we talk about music like jazz or blues or gospel, those genres of music came long after the Negro spirituals were established. And some people even say these other forms of music were birthed out of the Negro spirituals.
When we talk about the Negro spiritual and, say, gospel music, the performance styles are completely different. Gospel music simply deals with church music with a lot of instrumental accompaniment, clapping, a lot of improvisation. But with the Negro spiritual, even though there may be some improvisation, it doesn’t involve a lot of improvisation. Traditionally, Negro spirituals don’t call for instrumental accompaniment.
When the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing, the music is a cappella. The original Fisk Jubilee Singers transformed the Negro spiritual into an art form or concert spiritual. And because of that, clapping, for example, is not recognized as part of a performance of Negro spirituals.
Spirituals are known for their layers of meaning, some of which were hidden to slave masters. Can you give an example of one that is often sung by Fisk Jubilee Singers that reflects that?
One we often sing is “Steal Away to Jesus.” (One) meaning is that we will run away to the North — because we’re stealing away to Jesus — and Jesus was referring to a place of freedom.
When George White, a music professor and Fisk’s treasurer, decided to have singers from the school perform the spirituals for white audiences as fundraisers, was his idea supported by many or was it controversial or both?
To leave Fisk with a group of students to go on a tour, singing to raise money — that was opposed. The administration at Fisk at that time did not believe he would succeed. They thought this was more of an experimental adventure because no one had ever done that. He was not sure of how audiences would receive Black young people singing so he taught them to sing Western (and European) classical music with a hope that would be more attractive to the various audiences. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were also not willing to sing the Negro spirituals because those songs were very sacred to them. But eventually, they started singing the Negro spirituals to the delight of their audiences.
The spirituals were “concertized” for performance for these fundraisers. Do you think anything was lost as the songs moved from the field where slaves had labored to concert halls where people paid to hear them sung?
I don’t think anything was lost. I read a quote by one of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, and in this book he transcribes some of the songs they sang. I look at the melodies and they’re the same melodies we sing except the arrangements may be different.
How were the singers received at a time when slavery had just ended and African Americans were not welcome in many venues that were segregated?
Originally, they were not well received. There are accounts where people would go into the concerts, listen to the Fisk Jubilee Singers sing and not even give donations. There are accounts of Fisk Jubilee Singers going into hotels and hotel owners, realizing they were Black people, turned them away, wouldn’t give them a place to sleep or food to eat. There was a time when George White was able to purchase first-class coach (train) tickets for them but they were refused admittance into the first-class coaches because of the color of their skin. There is a painting somewhere that someone depicted them looking more like animals on stage singing. So they did go through those types of experiences as they went on their first tour. But I always say the young Fisk students who went out to raise funds for the university kept their focus on their mission and also were able to sing their songs and win the hearts of many people.
There have been debates over whether white people singing spirituals is a form of cultural appropriation. And I wonder where you stand on that issue.
As a musician I don’t agree with that because growing up in Ghana, we were taught songs like the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” The performance of music, I don’t believe should be limited to one specific culture. Because music, rather, brings people together. I would rather encourage people of every culture to learn music of other cultures.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang with The Erwins, a Southern gospel group, in February, including the song ” Watch and See.” How often do the Fisk singers sing music other than spirituals and is that generally well received, or are they criticized for not sticking with the music tradition for which they’re known?
I think one of the reasons we won the Grammy is because we sang with other people and the album consists of a variety of music that actually would not be classified as Negro spirituals. The album consisted of country music. We had some blues. We had gospel. We do want to be remembered as an ensemble that sings Negro spirituals but when there are occasions that call for us to sing other types of music and if it fits into our schedule, we are going to do so.
Do you have a favorite spiritual sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and, if so, which one and why?
I have a lot of favorite spirituals. One of them is ” Lord, I’m Out Here on Your Word.” I like that spiritual because it’s a song that helps me to be committed to my work. A line in the song says “If I die on the battlefield, Lord, I’m out here on your Word.” That is telling me that no matter what goes on, I am out to serve God. And I know he is a faithful God. And I have to be faithful to him as well. If I’m serving him, then no matter what’s going on, I trust him to provide whatever I need to succeed in my work.
Another is “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I love that song, again, because it gives me the idea that God takes care of us.
ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — A small historically Black college in South Carolina is offering all full-time students free tuition for the upcoming 2021-22 academic year.
Clinton College President Lester McCorn made the announcement last week for qualifying full-time students at the school in Rock Hill. The school had already made the commitment to slash fall tuition by 50% for its students, and offer every student a new tablet, news outlets reported.
But now the college is making tuition free as the school hopes to ensure their students get a college education despite financial hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each full-time student will also get a free Microsoft Surface laptop, McCorn said.
“We want to make sure you can perform with excellence without excuse,” he said.
The school’s website lists the cost of tuition for full-time students at $4,960 per semester, while a full year costs $9,920.
Students who are vaccinated can live on campus and will still be responsible for paying room and board. Those who attend full-time and live off campus can continue their courses online free of charge.
“It has been taxing for each and everyone of us,” McCorn said of the pandemic. “At Clinton College, we have done our best to keep the school moving forward and providing a quality education, even in a virtual environment.”
Clinton College was one of many schools established by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church during Reconstruction years, to help eradicate illiteracy among freedmen. It has operated continuously for 120 years.
The school is among a wave of smaller schools around the state offering free tuition to students during the pandemic, The Herald reported. Spartanburg Community College is currently offering students a similar deal to anyone taking a minimum of six credits — or two courses — while Denmark Technical College recently offered to waive the costs for the first 500 applicants for the fall semester.
Rodman Allen hugs his mother after the 2021 Wilberforce University Commencement, Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Wilberforce, Ohio. Courtesy photo
(RNS) — There are usually lots of cheers and applause at university commencements.
But 2020 and 2021 graduates of Wilberforce University, a school affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, had an extra reason to celebrate during their ceremony on Saturday (May 29) in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Their president announced that any debts they still owed to the historically Black university had been forgiven.
“Because you have shown that you are capable of doing work under difficult circumstances, because you represent the best of your generation, we wish to give you a fresh start,” said President Elfred Anthony Pinkard. “So therefore the Wilberforce University board of trustees has authorized me to forgive any debt. Your accounts have been cleared and you don’t owe Wilberforce anything. Congratulations.”
As soon as Pinkard said the words “forgive any debt,” the masked students started screaming, shouting and jumping, prompting him to smile and laugh before he continued his surprise announcement, which was streamed live on Wilberforce’s YouTube channel.
When he added “accounts have been cleared” there were more cheers, jumps and hand-waving among the black-robed students wearing green and gold stoles.
In a statement on the university’s website, the school said the amount of debt forgiveness for both classes totals more than $375,000 for the 166 new alumni.
It said the “zero balance” was the result of scholarships from the United Negro College Fund Inc., Jack and Jill Inc. and other institutions that aided students in the spring and fall semesters of 2020 and the spring of 2021.
It noted all student also benefited from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund established through the CARES Act. In particular, that financial assistance had previously helped the students whose balances due to the school would have prevented them from registering for their fall classes in 2020.
One student spoke of the difference the debt forgiveness will make for him in the years ahead.
“I couldn’t believe it when he said it,” Rodman Allen, now a 2021 alumnus, said in a statement. “It’s a blessing. I know God will be with me. I’m not worried. I can use that money and invest it into my future.”
During the ceremony the university also awarded posthumous doctorate degrees to civil rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers.
Wilberforce, the oldest private historically Black school operated and owned by African Americans, was founded in 1856.
Sen. Kamala Harris announced her bid for president on Martin Luther King Day, the holiday honoring one the world’s most revered leaders. Later that day in January 2019, Harris showed up at her alma mater, Howard University, less than two miles from the White House, the place she was vying to make her home.
“Some people are asking, ‘Why are you bringing everyone together here?’” Harris said on that January day. “It is because Howard University is one of the most important aspects of my life. It is where I ran for my first elected office, which was freshman class representative of the liberal arts student council at Howard University. So, this is where it all began.”
Although Harris ultimately called her presidential campaign quits, citing a lack of funding and dropping out of the most diverse pool of candidates in history, she made history again Wednesday night when she officially accepted the nomination to be the Democratic Party’s vice president, the first woman of color on a major-party ticket.
For the alumni and students enrolled in the hundred or so historically Black colleges and universities, Harris’ ascent to be in contention for one of the highest offices in the land has been something to celebrate. Harris made sure they knew the love is mutual; in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, she counted her “HBCU brothers and sisters” as her “family.”
Harris’ supporters and critics who are bonded to her by the shared legacy of an HBCU education are weighing what this moment means to them personally, but also the potential it has to raise the profile of HBCUs more broadly.
“This is a moment in history that is empowering for women, especially women of color, and it is an opportunity to give our voice to HBCUs producing the best,” said Inez Brown, 55, who was initiated into Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. at Howard University with Harris in the spring of 1986.
Brown began college at Cornell University, a predominantly White institution, where she says she had a great experience but couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. After a year, she transferred to Howard. Surrounded by so much diversity — more diversity and versatility than you see anywhere else, she said — she felt supported by an institution she felt was committed at its core to her success.
“But even some [Black people], we will sort of look at HBCUs like they are inferior to [predominantly White institutions],” Brown said. “You just have to look at the products that come out of HBCUs and you have to say to yourself, ‘How could people possibly think that way?’”
HBCUs represent just 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities, yet nearly one in five Black people with college degrees have one from these schools. Women have outnumbered men at HBCUs since the 1970s, and these institutions are helping to level the gap in science fields, producing nearly half of all Black women who earned a degree in science, technology, engineering or math from 1995 to 2004.
HBCUs, which were founded primarily after the Civil War to educate formerly enslaved people who were shut out of other higher learning institutions, continue to face their fair share of challenges to secure funding and keep accreditation. Yet they continue to do more with less, graduating more poor Black students than predominantly White schools, and more upwardly mobile Black graduates than their counterparts with much heftier endowments.
These institutions persist as academic powerhouses, producing politicians, physicians and prominent leaders in every field. Graduates are provided a bastion of Blackness before bearing the brunt of bigotry lurking beyond the gates of their campuses.
During their senior year at Howard, Brown and Harris were initiated into Alpha Kappa Alpha. Brown has known Harris longer than she hasn’t, and she said their line (the class of women who joined the sorority together) never hesitates to pick up the phone and rally around each other, or show up to an induction — or, if things work in their favor, a presidential inauguration next year.
“Through it all she has been, to us, our line sister Kamala,” Brown said. “She is so authentic, and that is so inspiring for us because you do not have to pretend, forget from where you come, assimilate into society.”
Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded in 1908 on Howard’s campus as the first sorority for Black women, boasting members such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Brown recognizes this moment as meaningful for many, but it’s not lost on her that Harris, who’s broken so many “firsts” in her career, has done so as the member of the first chapter of the first sorority for Black women.
“It is really a nod to our founders,” Brown said. “That they were able to establish something so special and so awesome at a time it was not the norm — for Black women to get together to establish a professional organization legally. It wasn’t just a club. It is a history of excellence. ”
Nearly three decades later, Brittany Foxhall, 28, was initiated into Howard’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the same one as Harris. And Foxhall also had the experience of the high-stakes student body elections, coming out victorious as student body president.
“That could legitimately one day be me,” Foxhall said of Harris. “It seems surreal. It’s really powerful. I think Howard kids right now are trying to take ownership over this elation right now, but it means so much more. I’m excited to share her, and share this with people who aren’t Howard alums and aren’t a part of AKA.”
The day Biden announced Harris would join his ticket, Foxhall’s group text with her sorority sisters “blew up.” She felt a mix of emotions: She chewed over not being particularly interested in a Joe Biden presidency, and the question of Harris’ record as a prosecutor.
There was Harris’ 2011 truancy policy during her time as California Attorney General — which Harris has since apologized for — and her choice to be involved with law enforcement at all. That’s just politics, Foxhall ultimately reasoned. All of them have done something that could be deemed problematic, she said. It’s not fair to expect Harris to have had a “2020 mindset” 20 years ago.
“I can’t wrap my head around how anything she’s done in her past is even close to the fascism we’re experiencing now,” Foxhall said.
Foxhall watched the Twitter battles over her “big sister,” and became alarmed that there were people who would prefer to not vote at all. Reading the conversations, Foxhall felt a sense of clarity for what her role would be heading into November.
“As a Howard grad, as a soror, and a Black woman, there needs to be an expectation to protect her,” Foxhall said. “I’m not going to allow this to go down. She’s about to clean up a hell of a mess, and that’s going to be a lot.”
Gabrielle Horton, 29, has added her voice to some of the Twitter conversations leveling criticism against Harris. Despite their shared identities as Black women from California who graduated from an HBCU — Horton went to Spelman College in Atlanta — Harris’ nomination gave Horton no sense of excitement. She is tired.
“I think that this election cycle, 2020, the uprisings, the pandemic, the man that we have in the White House, have sucked all of the energy or any bit of joy I think I might have felt before,” she said.
Like Harris, Horton was bitten by the political bug while attending an HBCU. She worked in the late Rep. John Lewis’ office, and after graduating in 2012, she joined then-President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign as a field organizer in North Carolina.
Horton financially supported Julián Castro’s bid for the White House. The country “wasn’t ready” for him, she says, but she was hopeful the progressives like him running for office would plant new ideas and push the party more to the left.
“We need an immediate change, people who are responsible and who can step to the plate to lead,” Horton said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re perfect or that we agree on everything. We have a lot of work to do even with Kamala and Joe in office next year, but that’s an easier push than trying to do anything in this administration.”
When Harris accepted the vice presidential nomination, she credited the younger generation with pushing the country where it needs to go. For Horton, that means holding Harris and Biden accountable for their records on crime and law enforcement. In light of the uprisings in response to police brutality this summer, it’s hard to wrestle with this ticket, but at least they’re taking it seriously, Horton said.
Horton wishes she was having “a feel-good time” with an HBCU grad potentially heading to the highest office. But her complicated feelings mirror the reality of being Black in America, holding many things to be true at once — the joy and the trauma, Horton said. She is prepared to hold Harris accountable, just as she feels she has to do the same for HBCUs that have struggled to find ways to be more inclusive of trans and queer people and survivors of sexual assault.
“A lot of HBCUs, including Spelman and including Howard, respectability politics sometimes trumps how all students experience their time,” Horton said. “In many ways some of the pushing and advocacy people have been doing to make them these fully realized spaces to make sure all Black lives matter … is similar to the work we are doing, or have to do, with this Biden-Harris administration.”
But despite her hangups, Horton still feels a connection to the fellow HBCU graduate.
“There’s some experiences only we understand and have had, and it’s a very special connection and bond,” Horton said. “This is not the last HBCU alum we’re going to see in the White House. We can thank her for opening up that door.”
Bennett College, a historically Black college for women in North Carolina, almost lost its accreditation a year ago. It launched the Stand With Bennett campaign and raised more than $8 million to put toward an accreditation appeal and prove its financial viability.
This year, it has a new president at the helm, Suzanne Walsh, who is leading a fully-virtual school year for now. With the coronavirus impacting people of color disproportionately, she just couldn’t see a way to reopen in person. If there’s a silver lining, the fight for Bennett’s future positioned them to be prepared for lower enrollment, reduction in revenue.
Walsh takes pride in Harris’ achievements “as if we all personally helped her,” she said in an interview.
Walsh has worked with HBCUs through her time at different fundraising foundations, but did not attend an HBCU herself. She hopes that Harris being a product of an HBCU gives more visibility to schools like Bennett, whose students joined the Woolworth sit-ins in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, as part of the fight for integration.
“I hope that people do see HBCUs as part of an incredible part of the past and history and also a vibrant springboard for the future — it really is toggling between those two worlds,” Walsh said.
And Walsh is impressed with Biden too. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, she joined a conference call with Biden and a handful of other HBCU presidents — she was the only woman among them. The presidential candidate asked what issues were on their minds, and Walsh said she riffed on her concerns about Breonna Taylor and the role of Black women out in community, businesses and in the streets. Biden circled back to Walsh’s remarks, calling her madame president, and thanked her for bringing up these issues.
“He had such an appreciation and understanding that I didn’t expect for what the conversations were amongst Black women that, quite frankly, it threw me,” Walsh said. “There’s no grandstanding. This is just a tiny conversation of people, there’s no media, we’re just on a phone.”
Dana Williams, chair of the Department of English at Howard University, pointed out that the Biden-Harris ticket represents the first time a Democratic ticket is without an Ivy League degree since 1984.
At this moment in history, the possibility of having an HBCU graduate in the White House “rejects supremacist notions and mythologies about American exceptionalism” that Ivy League institutions uphold, she said. HBCUs have always been about advancing promise, from Howard Law School alumni Thurgood Marshall arguing Brown v. Board, and using the school’s resources to prepare the case, to their fostering of notable leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, NASA scientist Katherine Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois. Their students have never had the luxury of accepting the status quo. It’s why Willams herself made the “political decision” to choose Howard, and be trained by the best scholars of literature — whether others recognize them as such or not.
Williams hopes that even if people can’t rally behind Harris, that they can rally behind Black women, who’ve been so reliable, dependable and consistent in politics. Harris’ nomination is a signal, a dare, to ever ignore them again.
“There are Black people who aren’t excited about her candidacy, but I think ultimately, it’s more important that Black women’s vote-labor has finally been acknowledged as valuable in a leadership position,” Williams said. “Black women have saved the Democratic Party over and over again only to be ignored. …We have reached the point where we have commanded the respect of people that should’ve been respecting us all along.”
Williams is a fellow member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and has exclusively studied at HBCUs: bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University in Louisiana, master’s and doctorate from Howard. Williams said she doesn’t think she would’ve been any less excited if Harris weren’t her sorority sister, but it added a “personalization factor.”
Williams said that Harris launching her presidential campaign in January 2019 and going straight to Howard University signaled her consciousness of wanting to be perceived as undeniably Black, connected to institutions that produce “social engineers” and change agents.
“She’s so poised,” Williams said. “It’s part prosecutor, but a tremendous part of it is Black-girl confidence that comes out of an HBCU.”
In 2010, two economists claimed that graduates of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, suffer a “wage penalty” – that is, they earn relatively less than they would had they gone to a non-HBCU.
In an early draft of the paper, the economists – one from Harvard and the other from MIT – argued that while HBCUs may have served a useful purpose back in the 1970s, they were now, by some measures, serving to “retard black progress.” The reason why, they suggested, is that traditionally white institutions may have gotten better at educating black students and that there might be value in “cross-racial connections” when it came time to get a job.
As a scholar who has researched HBCUs, my colleagues and I have found contrary evidence: Students who went to HBCUs do not suffer a relative wage penalty. In fact, we found that they typically and on average earn more than similar students who went to non-HBCUs. Our findings are based on comparing HBCUs to other schools with a sizable black student population.
Our study included 1,364 nonprofit colleges and universities, both public and private, that award at least a baccalaureate degree.
Increased wages were strongest for the elite HBCUs: Hampton, Howard, Morehouse, Spelman and Xavier. But the effect persisted 10 years after graduation for graduates of all 59 HBCUs – more than half of the 100 or so HBCUs in the nation – that were included in the sample. Other HBCUs were not included because of lack of data.
And it wasn’t a small amount of money, either. In our study, we found that HBCU students from the elite universities earn 32% more six years after attendance than students with similar characteristics who attended other colleges and universities.
But before anyone celebrates our findings as a clear victory for HBCUs, a few caveats are in order.
First, all HBCU graduates don’t earn more than all non-HBCU graduates all the time. In fact, much like Freyer and Greenstone did a decade ago, we found that early in their careers – extending to six years after graduation – typical HBCU graduates do in fact suffer a wage penalty.
The HBCU study in 2010 found grads earned 20% less than peers from other colleges in the 1990s, although it’s not known how long after graduation this occurred.
We found that there’s an 11% wage penalty after six years but then it disappears after 10 years, and in fact turns into an advantage. So while typical HBCU graduates may be earning less money than non-HBCU graduates in their late 20s, by their early 30s, they are earning more.
We also found that the wage advantage for HBCUs remained no matter what the major. In my view as an economist, the relative gains for HBCU attendees after six years suggest, that on average, HBCU graduates are better able to find jobs that match their skill and capabilities.
Just what is it that makes HBCUs more effective as escalators for labor market earnings and income mobility? Earlier research my colleagues and I conducted at Howard University found that a high proportion of black students in a college or university serves as a boost to black identity and self-esteem. That boost, we found, translates into labor market skill acquisition that results in an earnings advantage.
Given the history of HBCUs receiving unequal resources, our results suggest that government and philanthropy could consider more funding for HBCUs. That could enable them to be even more successful at what they do, particularly when it comes to enabling students from households that earn the least money to move up economically.