Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

085: The Jubilee Singers of Wilmington, North Carolina

In 1873 a number of students from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, toured America and then Britain presenting concerts of Spirituals and gathering money for the university’s much needed building fund. Their success became widely known, and other African American choirs toured. The port city of Wilmington, North Carolina produced a twelve-strong (five males) choir in 1875 and its first British appearance was in Liverpool on 29 November 1876.

Four names appeared in the press: A. Davies (sic: probably Davis), Miss Samuels and Mr & Mrs (sometimes Miss) Washington, and one song is named: “Little Ones at Home”. The group appeared in Nottingham 27-28 December 1876 and has been traced in Worcester (23 January 1877) and Liskeard (Cornwall) in April 1877. The British public confused the Fisk Singers (which toured Britain and Germany March-November 1877) with the Wilmington Singers, and on 10 August 1877 the Northern Echo of Darlington carried two advertisements – the Fisks, due to sing in Stockton on 14 September advised “friends and the public not to be deceived by other companies calling themselves Jubilee Singers” and the Wilmingtons, scheduled to perform in Redcar on 10 August, stated they claimed “no connection with the Fisk party”.

It is tempting to regard the Wilmingtons as copies of the Fisks (whose audiences included royalty and high society for they were focussed on gathering subscriptions) but the support of Lord Shaftesbury and then, in August 1877, the ex-slave author and lecturer William Wells Brown, suggests they were a reputable group. They and Brown were in Middlesbrough in August 1877 and the singers, numbering ten, had a sell-out concert in Guernsey in September. The Star newspaper named Charles and Ida Washington and said Davis would speak on his experience of slavery.

Touring was fatiguing (the Fisks also fell out with each other) and in 1878 the Wilmingtons divided. Davis was described as the “late leader” when he and his wife were in the Isle of Man in July. The Washingtons and five others were back in the Channel Islands and were managed by the Revd H. Parsons of Brighton. He did not pay them for two weeks, there was unpleasantness at a concert in Littlehampton, and the arrangement ended.

Charles Washington (his address was 14 Addington Street, York Road, London) advertised in the entertainment weekly Era in November 1878 stating the Wilmingtons were now in their third year of touring Britain, they had twice performed before royalty and were seeking new engagements.

Alexander Davis and his wife were billing themselves as the Wilmington Jubilee Singers when they were in Flint, North Wales, in December 1878 and embarked on a “farewell tour through South Wales” according to the Era of 5 January 1879. That summer had the pair in the Isle of Man but supporters became suspicious of the allegedly charitable nature of the venture and closed it down, and sent the net balance to Fisk University. Evidence that supports their concerns is that no British newspaper had named the school or church in Wilmington that would benefit from donations – unlike the Fisks. Davis did not abandon his efforts for he advertised in the Era in October 1879, seeking a white or a coloured manager for the singers and in Oxford in November he claimed they were gathering funds for a mission hall in Wilmington. They went on to Ipswich (Jackson’s Oxford Journal 8 November 1879; Ipswich Journal 18 November 1879).

The Washington-led Wilmington Singers numbered eight when they were in suburban London in late November 1879, moving via Grimsby to sing at the Guildhall in Doncaster on 5 and 6 December. They worked Belfast over Christmas, The Belfast News-Letter, 19 December 1879 named them as Matilda Giles, Mary White, Amelia and Peter Stokes, William Jones, Charles and Miss Washington and pianist-soprano Miss Blechoff. They were in Hinckley in mid-January 1880 then Melton Mowbray, and in April they were in Market Rasen, Lincs., when the Era of 4 April carried their advertisement for a good sight-reading pianist. On 4 November 1880 the Liverpool Mercury listed them in a benefit concert for the black-face minstrel director Sam Hague. Nothing more has been located and perhaps they sailed back to the USA from Liverpool.

Librarian Beverly Tetterton of Wilmington has advised that Giles and Stokes are local surnames, and provided the 1879 Doncaster reference (that English town being the North Carolina port’s twin city).

The Wilmingtons may have remained in Britain for four years, possibly recruiting new members direct from the US or from within Britain. That the Fisks tried to recruit one of them shows they could sing, but the Fisks were so much better at publicity and in gaining the support of well-heeled people that the Wilmingtons have been all but ignored. No image of the Wilmingtons in Britain is known (unlike the Fisks).

Like the Fisks, their presentations of the music of African Americans added a new and respected element to the concert and recital music world of Britain, one which continued into the 1950s.

Leave a message by clicking on any image