In the 1870s, Princeton students were exposed to a form of entertainment new to them: African American choirs. Many of the singers in these choirs, who were raising money for Black colleges, had formerly been enslaved. Their performances met with a mixed reception among Princetonians and on balance appear to have been a negative experience for the performers. Our own records don’t tell us all that much about these choirs, but using other available resources alongside the materials in the University Archives can give us a fuller understanding of the context of what we do have here at Mudd Library.
The first such choir to visit Princeton seems to have been the Jubilee Singers, who organized in 1871 to raise money for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Their music marked a shift in what most white Americans were accustomed to hearing as “slave music,” in that it was not minstrelsy, but a sincere presentation of the songs of the enslaved, sung a capella. They are usually credited with introducing the genre of music known as “negro spirituals” to the world. Ultimately, this first group of Jubilee Singers from Fisk raised the money to build the university’s first building, Jubilee Hall.
James McCosh invited the group to perform in Princeton in 1873. A local church (Second Presbyterian Church) was offered as the venue. There was some buzz in advance of their arrival, stirred partly by the Nassau Literary Magazine:
Their antecedents, they having been slaves, their peculiar songs and manner of singing, the object they have in view, that is to raise $70,000 for their College, all unite to create a great interest in their behalf, and excite a universal desire to see these singers and listen to their strange yet pleasing melodies.
Gustavus Pike, a minister who often toured with the Jubilee Singers, wrote that the invitation McCosh sent had been especially welcome, since the group had experienced a lot of mistreatment in New Jersey due to bigotry and this gave them hopes of a better reception. However, they soon found that Princeton was like anywhere else in the state—if not worse. The Story of the Jubilee Singers (1877) describes the visit as “the most offensive manifestation of caste prejudice that ever flaunted itself in the face of the party.” Black ticketholders, regardless of what their tickets said, were sent to “an out-of-the-way corner of the church” and were not allowed to leave the section of the building to which they were segregated. The group’s director, a white northern missionary named George Leonard White, addressed the discrimination head-on, denouncing it as immoral.
Pike summarized White’s words to the audience as having condemned the segregation as
a grievance not to be passed over in silence when asked to make an invidious distinction in a Church of Christ against the very class of people who gave the performance, and especially when this demand was countenanced by the distinguished educators of a Christian College, who might be presumed to hate all manner of prejudice with a holy hatred.
According to The Story of the Jubilee Singers, the audience (which included many Princeton students) responded by hissing angrily at White. The choir considered refusing to perform but chose to go ahead out of consideration for the many people who had traveled significant distances to hear them and who had not participated in the church’s discriminatory actions. Although Pike said he had “no reason to suppose that [McCosh] approved of the injustice shown,” he also gives no indication that McCosh responded in any way other than “kindly” behavior toward the choir.
I have not found any account of the segregation, White’s words, or a hissing audience within Mudd’s holdings, though I did find hints of the attitudes behind these events. In the Lit, one writer complained of discrimination on the part of Second Presbyterian Church for a different reason: for allowing the Jubilee Singers to perform instead of Charlotte Cushman or Mary Frances Scott-Siddons. Cushman and Scott-Siddons were actors known for their dramatic readings of Shakespeare, and some students indicated that they would prefer to hear from one of these women (both of whom were white). The unnamed writer in the Lit described “a series of comic-religious travesties in heathenish songs [that] were produced by the Jubilee Singers,” “dressed in the grotesque gibberish of the slave’s accents, and replete with the gross superstitions of the slave’s mind…” They, the student wrote, not female actors, “should be excluded from the House of God.”
Whether it was the same author or another is unknown, but this theme came up again months later in the Lit:
…we feel justified in saying, that to listen to the familiar words of the poet [Shakespeare] delivered with the exquisite expression and rare pathos that this woman [Scott-Siddons] possesses is preferable to…the weird chants and plaintive song of Jubilee Singers.
However, another writer for the Lit took a different approach, praising the choir’s talents and reporting that the concert had been very well attended, with the audience being “highly delighted” with their performances of “Go Down Moses” and “Mary and Martha.” To this student’s mind, “The object of their singing is a very worthy one and they are meeting with a hearty response in all the cities and towns which they visit.” Princeton’s own Nassau Quartette decided to add “Mary and Martha” to their repertoire after the concert. One can find “Mary and Martha” in some subsequent Princeton songbooks. Given what we know about Princeton’s minstrel tradition and local attitudes, as well as the other music such groups performed, it is probable that Princeton students would have sung this piece in a less sincere way than they had heard it from the Jubilee Singers, however.
In February 1874, Princetonians had an opportunity to hear this style of music again from the Hampton Singers, who were raising money for the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Their choir, too, was partially made up of formerly enslaved singers. The Hampton Singers were highly successful, contributing the bulk of the school’s early endowment and enough money to build Virginia-Cleveland Hall.
The Lit published the same refrain, albeit somewhat less stridently, about the performance. After noting that “the concert was peculiar,” the writer noted that the audience was “unusually attentive and responsive” and praised the performers themselves for being “exceedingly earnest.” Though the Lit had previously derided the Jubilee Singers, here it pronounced them the superior choir to the Hampton Singers “in point of cultivation and taste,” while “no slave…can favorably compare with that of the most talented operatic singer of the day in rendering many of the popular songs of the South.” The Lit again asked why these singers were being invited to town rather than Scott-Siddons.
It so happened, however, that for at least one student, what might have been a coincidence of scheduling caused some reflection on the goals and lives of these singers. Wendell Phillips, a prominent abolitionist and civil rights activist, also visited Princeton in 1874 at the invitation of a student group just a few days before the Hampton Singers. The Lit noted,
Call him abolitionist you may, stigmatize him as a grumbler and enthusiast if you will, yet there are traits in his character which belong only to the true man…And when, a few evenings after, we listened to the signing of the Hampton slaves, we thought that the negroes of the South had at least one champion, who had power to speak for them in the North and who could plead with an eloquence approaching perfection…
In nearly every reference, positive or negative, that I found to these singers formerly being enslaved in our records, Princeton sources refer to them not as freed, nor formerly enslaved, but as “slaves” as if in the present. Emancipation thus met with some linguistic resistance on campus in the decade after the Civil War. To the extent that this language gives us insight into community attitudes, we can see how the experience of singing at Princeton would have been to perform for a hostile venue, even if our own sources do not tell us about the racial segregation of the audience or the hissing in response to condemnation of prejudice. It is also telling that one of the students writing for the Lit indicated that it would be better to hear plantation spirituals performed by trained (white) opera singers rather than by a choir of the formerly enslaved.
These and similar choirs made several visits to Princeton in the early decades of the 20th century, but their 19th-century appearances seem to have been largely erased from community memory. The Hampton Singers’ performance in 1914, for example, was said to be “the first time that the Hampton party has visited Princeton,” though other colleges (such as Harvard and Yale) had annual performances. Perhaps the original visit of the Hampton Singers to Princeton was similar to the experience the Jubilee Singers had, and the group themselves chose not to return for a few generations.
Jubilee Singers. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Audio recording, ca. 1915.
Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877.
Pike, Gustavus D. and Theodore F. Seward. The Singing Campaign for Ten Thousand Pounds, or The Jubilee Singers in Great Britain. New York: American Missionary Society, 1875.
Princeton Music Collection (AC056)