Andrew Ward reads from his book, "Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America."
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In October of 1871, a troupe of young former slaves and freedmen set out from Nashville, Tennessee under the direction of a white northern missionary named George Leonard White, to raise funds for their school, Fisk University, which was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Expelled from hotels, their clothes running to rags, they struggled for months in obscurity, performing spirituals at small town churches and street corners. But as word spread of their extraordinary artistry, they began one of the most remarkable trajectories in American history-from whipping post and auction block to concert hall and throne room. After triumphant tours of the northeastern United States, in the spring of 1873, the Fisk Jubilee Singers set sail for England.
Gazing out over the Atlantic, soprano Maggie Porter kept asking herself if it could be true "that I was really away out in that world of water, away from home and mother, bound for England and with the hope of seeing Queen Victoria, the grandest and noblest queen of them all, under whose flag thousands of our race had sought and found liberty in the dark days of bondage."
A day after their London debut, the Jubilees were invited to the home of the Duke of Argyle where they were shown into a large drawing room overlooking a garden sagging under a driving rain. White was jittery about protocol, afraid that one belated curtsy or clumsy form of address might cost the Jubilees the patronage of the best appreciated families of the kingdom.
Though Argyle's ancestors had owned slaves, the Duke himself was now a prominent crusader against the enduring vestiges of African slavery. He asked the Jubilees about their lives in bondage and was somewhat disappointed to learn that two of them had been born free. The Singers conversed with the guests and sang a few of their songs, but a mysterious air of expectancy seemed to settle over the party.
Unbeknownst to the Jubilees, the Duke was expecting as distinguished an addition to his party as the kingdom could provide. Perhaps half an hour into the visit, His Grace withdrew to greet a closed carriage out of which, to the Singers' astonishment, stepped none other than the Queen herself. Her majesty had driven out on this "very wet" afternoon not to hear the Singers but only to visit her daughter's in-laws. The Jubilees, she later told her journal, "simply happened to be there."
It is unlikely the Queen would have liked the Singers and their managers had she gotten to know them; she took a very dim view of the piety and evangelical fervor that bore her name. Victoria was not notably philanthropic, and during the American Civil War, she and her prince consort had supported Prime Minister Palmerston's early decision to de-emphasize Britain's opposition to slavery and support the South in the name of protecting the cotton supply of Lancashire's textile industry.
Though the Queen herself was part African -- her grandmother, Queen Charlotte, was directly descended from a black wing of the Portuguese royal house -- the dilemma of American freedmen was not one of her majesty's burning concerns. But she did love oddities and approached the Jubilee Singers' impromptu performance with the same undisguised curiosity with which she had once entertained the American midget, General Tom Thumb.
The Duke escorted her majesty to an adjoining room from which the Singers were summoned into the royal presence, bowing and curtsying as best they knew how. In later life, Maggie Porter would confess she was disappointed at first with the ruler of the largest empire in the. history of the world. "I had been hearing of Queen Victoria, " Porter recalled, "because the slaves in the West Indies had been freed under her reign. . . . Poor ignorant me! " she exclaimed, "I received the greatest disappointment of my life. The Queen wore no crown, no robes of state. She was like many English ladies I had seen in her widow's cap and weeds, but it was the Queen in flesh and blood."
Victoria sat quietly and expectantly as the Singers assembled before her. "I can see her now," wrote Porter, "she had on gloves, I can see her taking off her gloves and looking at us all the time." The Queen asked the Duke to convey her desire that they sing "Steal Away." "Her voice was very low pitched," Porter remembered, "but we heard her." So they sang "Steal Away" in their soft voices, their eyes ceiling-ward, averted from Victoria's protuberant gaze. After a silent pause, they chanted the Lord's prayer in Gregorian unison, then Porter heard the Queen's deep low voice saying, "Tell them we are delighted with their songs and that we wish them to sing 'John Brown.'" Porter wondered why the Queen "did not speak these words to us. We were within hearing and heard her words of commendation and her command, but what could I know of English court etiquette?" (As soprano Georgia Gordon later explained, "Queen Victoria could only be spoken to through a royal person.")
Her Majesty listened to the Jubilee's rendition with manifest pleasure, though her demeanor struck some of the Singers as a little flat. Victoria did not applaud nor thank them directly as they filed out. "When she had heard what she called for," Porter remembered, "she smiled, then she got up, and we stood still until she was out of sight."
That was a mistake, they were supposed to bow and curtsy as her majesty stumped past. Nevertheless, the Queen apparently had been pleased, though as much impressed by the color of the Singers as their music. That evening she wrote in her journal that the Jubilees were "real negroes, eleven in number, six women and five men, come from America, have all been slaves, some having been sold several times." Reflecting perhaps on her own African ancestry, her majesty reported that two of the Jubilees were "quite white, others coffee colored and several quite black. They sing extremely well together."
The Queen's blessing opened every door in her kingdom.