Photo-illustrations by Gabriela Pesqueira

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “On Reconstruction,” a project about America’s most radical experiment.

One of the treasures of Black history is preserved in a plain gray box, stashed away in a quiet room. In Nashville one morning, as the Fisk University campus shimmered in the summer heat, I walked into the archives of the Franklin Library to see it: a collection of papers from just after the Civil War about the founding of the university and others like it. I put on a pair of white cloth gloves to handle the pages. The stories I read in the collection were real, but they also felt to me like cosmology, recounting the beginnings of Black institutions I love and the arduous labors and journeys of the people who made them. The world described in the archive seemed especially malleable: open to possibility, and open to being shaped according to the hopes of the Black people in it.

One story in particular stood out, from the diary of a young woman named Ella Sheppard. In the summer of 1871, she was stuck waiting for a train home, in a hotel somewhere in the middle of Tennessee. She was traveling with a group of students, also Black, back to Nashville after singing at a concert in Memphis. Traveling in the South was dangerous for any Black person, let alone for a coed group of students making their way through the state where the Ku Klux Klan had recently been founded.

According to Sheppard’s diary, the presence of the Black singers did indeed attract attention. A mob of local white men, engaged in what another source euphemistically described as “electioneering,” began to threaten the students. As Sheppard recalled in her diary, the troupe left the hotel with the mob still in tow and walked to the railroad stop, where the choir began to sing a hymn. The mob melted away. As the train approached, Sheppard wrote, only the leader of the mob remained. He “begged us with tears falling to sing the hymn again.”

The group did not yet have renown or even a name, but the encounter at the train stop was an omen. In time, the choir would become the world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the diary written by Sheppard, who served as the group’s pianist and composer, preserves its origin story. Beyond that, the diary, and the other documents in that gray box, offer a founding story of the university itself. And they explain how the Negro spiritual went from being “slave music” to one of the most popular genres in America. Considered solely as cultural artifacts, the collection at Fisk—the delicate manuscripts, the brittle newspaper clippings, the photographs, the musical arrangements—is a marvel.

In my hands, I also held crucial insights into the radical possibilities of Reconstruction, a period of American history that has been purposefully warped and misunderstood for generations. In the process of revealing and restoring—and understanding—the actual truth about that era, we might also glimpse a new opportunity for ourselves. We might even again pick up the project of reshaping the world.

In his foundational work, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois devotes the last essay to “sorrow songs,” or Negro spirituals. He describes spirituals as radical folk music, their very existence a rebuttal to the notion that Black people were too primitive to hold political rights. Du Bois was himself a proud alumnus of Fisk University, and no stranger to the archive. In the essay, he provided a capsule history of “the pilgrimage of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.” It began shortly after the train-stop incident.

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.

George L. White, a white former Freedmen’s Bureau official and Fisk’s treasurer, was aware of the dire circumstances. The future of the institution was in peril—as was the entire project of educating freedpeople in the South. But White had an idea: He believed that the small choir he’d founded could help save Fisk. He and Sheppard had constantly drilled the singers, taking time to practice whenever the group’s studies allowed. The concert in Memphis had showcased their talent, and perhaps the performance at the train stop had ordained their purpose.

White proposed a tour through the North, hoping to raise a sum of $20,000—about $500,000 today. Most of the prospective audiences for these benefit concerts would be white: The director hoped to astonish them with the choir’s polish, and to rekindle the abolitionist fervor that had financially supported Fisk in its infancy.

Fisk’s faculty, and the parents of its students, thought White’s scheme was ridiculous. They called it a “wild-goose chase” and pointed to the real dangers that a group of young Black students would face on the road. The AMA actively discouraged the tour, worried that a poor showing might, in fact, impede fundraising efforts. In an act of disobedience, White drew funds from the school’s meager treasury, and the singers set out for Ohio.

The word reconstruction first brings to mind the idea of reconstituting what was, exactly as it was. Buildings may be reconstructed after disasters to the same specifications as before, defying the calamities that felled them. Ultimately the South was reconstructed in this way, with racial domination and labor exploitation as its foundation.

But reconstruction can mean something else, too. The word can connote taking the old and making it new, taking rupture and rubble as opportunities to fix fundamental faults, or to create new edifices altogether. For the span of just over a decade, America tried this definition on in starts and stops, attempting to fashion a truly new nation from the wreckage of the Civil War. The Fisk University singers were part of that effort, attesting to the truth that Reconstruction was not and never could be ended by the hand of the federal government.

As Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, and as Sheppard recounted in her diary, the early going for the singers was miserable, and dangerous. Lynchings and wholesale pogroms of Black communities were so common as to be unremarkable in the South, and threats of violence did not stop once Black people arrived in the North. According to the Fisk history, the students also faced the ire of white people who “spelled negro with two g’s.” White crowds often ridiculed the singers, and the group was regularly denied accommodation in white establishments. As the Fisk history has it, “The world was as unfamiliar to these untraveled freed people as were the countries through which the Argonauts had to pass; the social prejudices that confronted them were as terrible to meet as fire-breathing bulls or the warriors that sprang from the land sown with dragons’ teeth.”

The singers tried to take things in stride. It was never lost on them that every tour stop was history made. When Sheppard was an infant, her own mother had been bound to the land, and was sold away from her like nothing more than livestock. The fact that, at 20, Sheppard could freely take a train to the North was at once ordinary and revolutionary.

For their early performances—in Nashville, Memphis, and Cincinnati—the singers mostly pulled from a repertoire of standard popular songs designed to showcase their equality with white choirs and to impress any sophisticates in the audience. This was no small thing. The belief in the intellectual, moral, cultural, and evolutionary inferiority of freedpeople was pervasive among even white liberals in 1871. Just three years earlier, the editors of the Philadelphia-based Lippincott’s Magazine had argued against the proposition that “the negro, in his native state, knows what music is,” and ascribed any facility in music among Black people to clever mimicry or traces of white ancestry. According to Andrew Ward, the author of Dark Midnight When I Rise, a history of the Fisk University singers, the main interaction that most white northerners had with what they believed to be Black culture was the buffoonery of minstrelsy, mostly performed by white entertainers in blackface.

The choir found itself caught between white apathy and white hostility. At several venues, the singers barely sold enough tickets to cover their costs. In Chillicothe, Ohio, where George White used to teach, they drew enough of a crowd to instill hope of earning some money. But before they performed, they learned that the Great Fire, on October 8, had destroyed much of Chicago. They donated all of their proceeds from that night—less than $50—to victims of the fire.

The autumn stretched on. White prayed for deliverance. He declared that the singers should take the name Jubilee after the year in the biblical cycle whose arrival was celebrated by the manumission of slaves and the absolution of debts.

A new way forward for what was now the Fisk Jubilee Singers presented itself during a concert one night in Oberlin, Ohio. Mostly in private, the singers had been practicing a new repertoire, songs that the majority of white people had never heard. They cobbled together snatches of work songs and “sorrow songs” that many of the students, or their parents, had learned in the fields while enslaved. The minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson had written in the pages of this magazine about his experience of the Negro spirituals sung by Black soldiers during his time as a Union officer, calling them “a stimulus to courage and a tie to heaven.” But, for the songs they sang, there were no songbooks to work from. White, Sheppard, and the singers wrote much of the music down for the first time, helping formalize the genre as they went.

[From the June 1867 issue: Negro spirituals]

Sheppard noted in her diary that the singers harbored a deep ambivalence about even practicing spirituals in private. The songs “were associated with slavery and the dark past, and represented the things to be forgotten,” she wrote. Spirituals were imbued with the pain and the shame of bondage, which several of the Fisk singers knew firsthand. The songs were also considered sacred. To some, putting lyrics to paper or accompaniment meant stripping the spirit from the spirituals. Even in front of the small, mostly Black crowds that the choir had entertained before setting out on tour, the spirituals had been mixed in sparsely.

But that night in Oberlin, the Jubilee Singers did something different. As guests of a meeting of the National Council of Congregational Churches, they were given an opportunity to perform. Among the songs that they chose was “Steal Away,” one of the spirituals in their repertoire. The song begins with a plaintive call to “steal away,” which is then echoed by the choir. The song’s quiet opening lyrics eventually swell with force to deliver “the trumpet sounds in my soul.” The Jubilee Singers had announced themselves with thunder. As The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer wrote on November 17, “They sung with such effect that the scrip was as abundant as the applause, a market basket full of money being taken for the University.”

The praise from the choir’s Oberlin performance helped them earn the notice of Henry Ward Beecher, an immensely influential abolitionist and preacher who had once sent rifles to John Brown’s antislavery guerrillas in Kansas. Beecher invited the group to sing for his congregation in Brooklyn.

Traveling to the event, the singers knew that it would likely be their last chance to prove themselves and save the university. They expected Beecher’s congregation to be a friendly crowd. The same church had backed Beecher’s most extreme forays into abolition and had hosted escaped and former slaves before. But the singers also knew that even the expectations of friendly crowds could be misshapen by prejudice.

They chose to begin the Brooklyn concert with a dramatic innovation: singing from the church balcony, obscured from the crowd by a curtain, their spectral voices filling the nave. And they chose to lead with “Steal Away,” the spiritual that had gotten them to Brooklyn in the first place. According to Fisk’s account of the Jubilee Singers, “So soft was their beginning that the vast audience looked around to see whence came this celestial music. Gradually louder and even louder the voices rose—to a glorious crescendo—and then back down to a mere whisper, ‘I ain’t got long to stay here.’ ” As they sang, the curtain was pulled back to reveal their faces. The audience’s reception was rapturous: “They clamored for more—would not let the singers cease.” Donations poured in. Beecher blessed the spirituals, though with an unfortunate image: “Only they can sing them who know how to keep time to a master’s whip.”

Ultimately, the Jubilee Singers became one of the most famous performing acts in the world. They toured through 1872, capturing the attention of both Black and white audiences. Their domestic success launched them abroad. They sang for Queen Victoria and for Kaiser Wilhelm I. In the end, George L. White’s “wild-goose chase” raised not $20,000 but almost $100,000.

The tour saved Fisk University. But more than that, it preserved an art form. Spirituals such as “Steal Away” became the core of the Jubilee Singers’ performances, and this expanding repertoire became the basis for the songbook of standards that still graces Black churches today. The spirituals captured the imagination of post-abolition literati. Mark Twain became something of a Jubilee Singers groupie, attending several shows to experience the music that he called “the perfectest flower of the ages.”

Some white listeners came just for the music; some came for the spectacle; some claimed that the Jubilee Singers’ spirituals had made them more sympathetic to “the plight of the Negro.” But their reactions were secondary to what the new prominence of the form meant for the people who’d made it. After one show in Washington, D.C., the Jubilee Singers were thrilled to have an audience with Frederick Douglass, then the most famous Black man in America. He told the singers: “You are doing more to remove the prejudice against our race than ten thousand platforms could do.” He was so taken by the young people from Fisk that he sang for them “Run to Jesus,” a spiritual that he’d learned as a child. The singers transcribed his song on the spot, adding it to the songbook. In a playbill for a later concert, promoting the new song, the Jubilee singers wrote: “Thus, under the influence of this song, he at last gained his freedom, and the world gained Frederick Douglass.”

The golden age of the Jubilee Singers was brief. Sheppard, the pianist and composer, had endured chronic illness even before the tour. Exhausted by the group’s barnstorming, White and several other members also took ill. As white supremacists in the South steadily destroyed Black civil rights, and as the North lost interest in protecting those rights, traveling as a Black coed group grew too dangerous. In 1877, when Congress officially ended Reconstruction—ratifying the deal that gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency and effectively withdrew federal troops from the South—the goings-on at Black universities were no longer considered by most liberal white people to be matters of their concern. With the coming of Jim Crow, institutions such as Fisk would form a network of care for Black folk—places where the true possibilities of Reconstruction could be preserved, even if neglected by the rest of America. The Jubilee Singers have been part of this effort; they still perform at concerts across the country.

But Negro spirituals went on to change the country as a whole. In America’s fragmented antebellum culture, before the advent of true mass media, the closest thing to “national music” had been the traveling farce of minstrel shows. Yet during Reconstruction, both the live performance and sheet music of Negro spirituals exploded in popularity. Spirituals prefigured the rise of the blues—a direct successor—as the first truly national popular music. The Black writer and activist James Weldon Johnson, writing in 1925, called spirituals “America’s only folk music and, up to this time, the finest distinctive contribution she has to offer the world.”

Through the efforts of the freedpeople themselves, the songs that had sustained them in the fields became a national art form. This transformation was not without cost. It wouldn’t be long before Black music was co-opted by white musicians and consumers. The early radio recordings of spirituals were often performed by white singers, and marketed to white audiences. For much of white society, the spiritual was the music of the freedpeople—minus the freedpeople.

For this reason, many radical Black scholars later considered the preservation and proliferation of the spiritual to be the ultimate capitulation—a sacred piece of Black culture saved only by performing it for people who largely thought that Black culture was unworthy.

Maybe there is another conclusion. After all, the spiritual was always meant to be performed in public, in full view of the overseer’s watchful eyes. But beneath the surface, the lyrics and rhythms of spirituals carried messages among the enslaved about kinship, about love, about daily life, about the freedom of the “promised land,” and even about rebellion. Insubordinate messages persisted precisely because, like the editors of Lippincott’s Magazine, the overseers believed that Black culture was counterfeit, and that the people chopping cotton in the fields could not turn words into effective weapons. The insurgency of the spiritual always relied on white consumption. It was the poison in the master’s tea.

Today, the legacy of Reconstruction most often surfaces in its legal consequences. The Fourteenth Amendment, in particular, has been the subject of major recent Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and abortion rights—the concept of equal protection under the law has never ceased being contentious. But the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers shows that the Constitution was not the only aspect of America subject to renegotiation during Reconstruction. The singers had set out to perform popular white music, in the main, but they soon found purpose in remaking American music in their own image. The same was true of every other element of life into which freedpeople entered. Throughout Reconstruction, societal assumptions—about labor relations, gender roles, the makeup of families, the means and ends of education, and much else—were in flux across the country, driven by the efforts of emancipated Black people in the South.

Experiments in new ways of living propagated wherever Black people pressed feet to earth. “Freedmen’s towns” flourished across the South, with all manner of governance. Would-be utopias winked in and out of existence. In coastal South Carolina, freedpeople soon became the majority of farm operators on the Sea Islands. There, they resisted guidance from the Freedmen’s Bureau (and the hopes of their former enslavers), rejecting the local market economy in favor of building spontaneous pastoral communes out of former plantations, and growing crops for subsistence instead of the market.

Across the South, freedpeople reconstituted families pulled apart on the auction block, but did so along much looser kinship lines than the nuclear family unit. In Savannah, Georgia, Black women amassed tracts of land in their own names to pass on to their children. Many freedpeople forsook the surnames of their enslavers, or even the first names they’d been given. Renaming was often an act of both radical purpose and plain descriptiveness: Freeman remains a common last name today.

In music and otherwise, it was clear that the main goal of Reconstruction—as it existed in the hearts and minds of the people being reconstructed—was not to leave the country as it was, but to shake the foundations of possibility. It was in this pliable reality that the Fisk Jubilee Singers began to make their mark.

The potency of spirituals and their insurgent history were clear to Du Bois. He tried to make his case, often writing in publications that endorsed the bigotry—sometimes clothed, sometimes naked—of his white contemporaries. In 1901, as a young scholar still relatively new to the white literary scene, Du Bois wrote for a series on Reconstruction in The Atlantic. Alongside skeptical essays from the historian William A. Dunning (who founded the school of American history that claimed the policy of making Black people citizens was a mistake) and Woodrow Wilson (who argued that freedpeople had not been fit to vote), Du Bois wrote, “The granting of the ballot to the black man was a necessity, the very least a guilty nation could grant a wronged race.”

[From the December 2023 issue: What The Atlantic got wrong about Reconstruction]

In his essay, Du Bois helped begin a slow reckoning with history that continues today. He did so not merely through his own insight and intellect, but through the revolutionary act of taking the freedpeople and their ambitions seriously—by describing what they wanted from Reconstruction.

For most of the past century, that history of possibility and Black self-determination during Reconstruction was considered too dangerous to teach. Du Bois’s own work on the topic was ignored by white historians as long as he lived, and textbooks inspired by Dunning littered classrooms in the South (and the North) even during my own childhood. To this day, the most famous and widely seen depiction of ostensible Black life during Reconstruction might be the racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, the D. W. Griffith epic that portrays Klansmen as heroes saving the South from Black savages and was endorsed by Wilson during his time as president. That fact suggests just how much the real story of Black Reconstruction has been obliterated from the public eye.

A growing movement on the right today again finds the history obscured by Wilson, Dunning, and the rest to be too inconvenient or perilous for schools and libraries. Agitation against depictions of Black history and agency is often grounded in the claim that it unfairly makes white people of the present feel guilty for the sins of the past. But that might just be cover for the real reason. Perhaps the true danger of Black history—especially of the era when the formerly enslaved seized and shaped their freedom—is that it shows us that there are more and better possibilities than the present.

That was the fundamental message of most spirituals, and of the sacred code of the promised land. That message is kept in a box of documents in a campus library. Even when salvation seems beyond reach, it may still be in our own hands.

In late August 2022, I walked into a building full of people in Drew, Mississippi. Folding chairs had been crammed everywhere they could be crammed, from the bathroom hallway to the front doors. We had all gathered there for a belated memorial service for Emmett Till, the boy brutally lynched in that very town by white men in 1955. Local citizens, dignitaries, schoolchildren, journalists—everyone was packed together.

After the processional, after the greetings and prayers, the Valley Singers of Mississippi Valley State University took the floor. They began a rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” written by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in 1900. The first two verses of the song evoke the trials of Blackness in the past and present. The choir sang Johnson’s lyrics with triumph, their voices filling the space.

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1871, the same year the Jubilee Singers set out on their tour. Their story inspired his own work cataloging and interpreting spirituals; he dedicated his first book on spirituals to “those through whose efforts these songs have been collected, preserved, and given to the world.” The history of the Jubilee Singers had been important to him. The lyrics and composition of his own anthem were inflected by the spirituals they rescued.

To Johnson, the revival of the spiritual “marked a change in the attitude of the Negro himself toward his own art material; the turning of his gaze inward upon his own cultural resources.” In his view, those cultural resources were themselves the power to build, and not just imitate—to shape a world. The song we all heard in that hot room in Mississippi was a tribute to a legacy that allowed us to be there in the first place.

Sweat dripped down my face as the singers brought the song home. The final verse slowed down to a quiet, piercing prayer. And then, a final, exulting march: “Shadowed beneath Thy hand / May we forever stand.” Even in that room, blanketed in Mississippi heat, I felt chills.

This article appears in the December 2023 print edition with the headline “The Years of Jubilee.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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