researching a novel about the Civil War,
writer Andrew Ward '68 came upon the memoirs of a former slave who
claimed, among other things, to have been a member of the choir
that became the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The Singers were freedmen
and former slaves who set out from Nashville, Tennessee, in 1872
to save their fledgling Fisk University from bankruptcy. Eventually
they would introduce vast audiences to the music of black America
by singing the spirituals of their slave forebears.
Moved by the courage and contribution of the Jubilees, Andrew set
out to propose a documentary for WGBH's "American Experience" and
to write a book about the Jubilees. The results--Sacrifice and Glory
and Dark Midnight When I Rise--debuted in May 2000. This past March,
Dark Midnight received the Christopher Award, given by the Christophers
for books "that truly educate and inspire audiences and celebrate
the power of the individual to enhance our vision of the world."
Andrew's family has been intimately connected to Oberlin for nearly
a century, beginning with his grandfather, professor of art Clarence
Ward. "I have the distinction of being the only member of the family
to flunk out," says Andrew, "but Oberlin keeps popping up everywhere
I turn." In this case, Andrew learned that Fisk University was staffed
and supported almost entirely by Oberlin divinity students. "They
were too radical to find pulpits in regular churches," he learned,
"so they opted instead for missionary work among the freedmen."
Among these were Adam Knight Spence and Erastus Milo Cravath, Fisk's
first presidents; Latin professor Helen Clarissa Morgan; and many
of Fisk's sponsors, including George Whipple of the American Missionary
Association. Their struggles, as well as the Jubilees', run through
page after page of Dark Midnight.
Ward's most extraordinary Oberlin encounter came with the discovery
that it was at Oberlin itself, on November 16, 1871, that the Jubilees
first succeeded in capturing the imagination of American churchmen.
They sang "Steal Away" to a convention of Congregational ministers
who then relayed the bedraggled troupe eastward from church to church
until they finally reached New York and created an 'overnight' sensation.
"What makes this remarkable to me," says Andrew, "is the fact
that as an Oberlin freshman I used to sing folk songs, and often
carted my guitar over to my grandfather's house on East College
Street, where he used to request his favorite spiritual, 'Steal
Away.' When Grandpa died in 1973, long before I had ever heard
of the Jubilees, my grandmother asked me to sing it at his memorial
service at First Church. It didn't hit me until I was watching
my own documentary that I had sung the same hymn from the same
choir loft of the same church in which the Jubilees first performed
it over a hundred years before."
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