The Negro spiritual and those who helped bring its euphonic sound from the early invisible African-American church to the attention of global audiences is ably captured by Andrew Ward in his new book, Dark Midnight When I Rise. Ward weaves his sources into a masterful narrative and places the experiences of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in historical and cultural context. Founded after the Civil War, Fisk was established in Nashville in 1866 as an educational institution for Americans of African descent newly freed from the insidious institution of slavery. Within five years, Fisk officials were faced with indebtedness that seemed insurmountable. White northern missionary and university treasurer George Leonard White attempted to rescue the financially besieged academy by organizing a group of students into a band of singers to raise needed funds. Taking the lyrics of the invisible black church, where slave worshippers met clandestinely in hush harbors, they presented to the world the unique musical genre of the Negro spiritual. Named the Jubilee Singers in memory of the Jewish year of Jubilee, the Fisk Jubilee Singers first toured in 1871-1872. It is Ward's assertion that the singers deserve a place at the table with other civil rights proponents. He illustrates that while a racially rigid caste system may have segregated them physically, it never expropriated their indomitable spirits. When they carried the Negro spiritual from its hush harbor roots to concert stages, not only did they save their university, they also manifested their people's unfulfilled aspiration for equality in America. An award-winning author and historian, Ward has produced projects for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Dark Midnight When I Rise is the companion volume to Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory, a one-hour documentary produced by PBS, as a part of the American Experience series airing in May.
Linda T. Wynn is the editor of Journey to Our Past: A Guide to African-American Markers in Tennessee and adjunct instructor of history at Fisk University.