Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

124: Isaac Dickerson, US Evangelist in 1890s London

Isaac Perry  Dickerson (1850/1852–1900), singer and preacher, was born into slavery in Wytheville, in south-west Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, probably in July 1850 or in 1852 (sources differ). His formal schooling started as a teenager, following emancipation in 1865, and in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he worked for a Jewish shopkeeper whose son taught him to read and write. In 1867 he enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, where he met Thomas Rutling.

Dickerson and Rutling were among eleven members of a choir, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who left for England in April 1873. Having experienced problems when touring New England, and anxious to collect the money that was required to keep Fisk running—it was then based in wooden army barracks, ill funded, and constantly turning away applicants anxious to study—the singers tried to avoid appearances in churches and chapels, where donations were uncertain, and welcomed commercial contracts and appearances before high society. Their contacts with the seventh earl of Shaftesbury were invaluable (he was the president of the Freedmen’s Missions Aid Society, the British supporters of freed slaves in America). The singers had their first London performance on 6 May 1873 before an audience that included the duke and duchess of Argyll, who invited them to perform at their home. Quite by chance Queen Victoria (the duchess’s mother) called, met the singers, and declared that ‘they sing extremely well together’  (Ward, 214). Others in high society now welcomed the ‘Fisks’, and Arthur Stanley, the dean of Westminster, invited them to sing in Westminster Abbey. He was particularly impressed by Dickerson, whose biblical studies had been noted back in Nashville, and promised to support him to study for the ministry. Meanwhile the Fisks undertook a triumphant tour of the country. In Liverpool their singing was described as ‘rendered with such skill as to lead to several repetitions’  (Liverpool Mercury, 3 Feb 1874). They went on to sing in Sheffield, a crowded concert graced by the presence of the American consul, and had a sell-out concert in Derby, before performing in Ipswich before the mayor, the member of parliament, and a ‘crammed’ hall, where they gathered a net £101 for Fisk (Ipswich Journal, 21 Feb 1874).

Dickerson enrolled at the University of Edinburgh after the Fisks’ tour ended in May 1874, but he never took a degree. America Robinson, who remained with the Fisks and again toured Britain and Germany in 1877–8, wrote in 1877 that Dickerson ‘will not be found associating with any but the wealthiest. He does not mingle with tradesmen. … He failed in his examinations again. He was trying for an M.A.’, adding that he never studied, was fond of fooling with ‘more girls than a little’, and was arrogant  (Ward, 340–41).

Dickerson went on to study in Nottingham and took his bicycle to France where he attempted to evangelize into 1880. He then went through Italy and on to Palestine, collecting slides of the holy places, which he later used in lectures in Britain. Around 1890 he settled in Plumstead in south-east London, where he found audiences at the working-class St Paul’s Mission. His eloquence impressed many people, and his personality was admired. How he financed his life is unknown, but he endorsed Page Woodcock’s ‘wind pills’ with a testimonial stating that in all his travels he (‘Rev I. P. Dickerson, ex-Jubilee Singer’) found them the best (‘they have quite cured me’)  (Hudderfield Daily Chronicle, 1 May 1899, and Manchester Guardian, 9 June 1899)). A quarter of a century had passed since he had sung with the group; his role in establishing the Fisks and spirituals in Britain had been substantial.

He spoke at chapels all over London. The census of 1891 shows him a visitor at 7 Bruce Grove in Tottenham, north London where his hostess was the 88 year old widow of pioneer meteorologist Luke Howard. She had four servants. The house, somewhat derelict, has been marked with a blue plaque noting her husband’s achievements.

The illustrated leaflet (top right) is from London, 1897 and was supplied by David Conroy, an old friend.

Dickerson died from a heart attack on 9 February 1900 at 58 Walmer Road, Plumstead, in the home of George Meads, where he had lived for six years. Meads told the registrar that his friend had been a temperance lecturer. The local newspaper described him as ‘the well-known coloured evangelist and temperance lecturer … whose burly figure and genial smile were well-known and cordially welcomed everywhere’. He had been ‘a popular evangelical missioner, lecturing in every part of the kingdom’  (Kentish Independent and County Advertiser, 17 Feb 1900). He was buried in Plumstead cemetery, his gravestone recording that he had been both a slave and a Jubilee singer.

This page is based on Jeffrey Green’s entry for Dickerson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Information on 7 Bruce Grove added August 2015 and the illustrated pamphlet October 2017.

See this site’s pages  049, 085, 093 and 121 and Andrew Ward, Dark Midnight when I Rise. The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (New York, 2000).