What exactly are African American spirituals? The Library of Congress provides a concise explanation.
A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. The songs proliferated in the last few decades of the eighteenth century leading up to the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860s. The African American spiritual (also called the Negro Spiritual) constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong.
Famous spirituals include “Swing low, sweet chariot,” composed by a Wallis Willis, and “Deep down in my heart.” The term “spiritual” is derived from the King James Bible translation of Ephesians 5:19: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” The form has its roots in the informal gatherings of African slaves in “praise houses” and outdoor meetings called “brush arbor meetings,” “bush meetings,” or “camp meetings” in the eighteenth century. At the meetings, participants would sing, chant, dance and sometimes enter ecstatic trances. Spirituals also stem from the “ring shout,” a shuffling circular dance to chanting and handclapping that was common among early plantation slaves. An example of a spiritual sung in this style is “Jesus Leads Me All the Way,” sung by Reverend Goodwin and the Zion Methodist Church congregation and recorded by Henrietta Yurchenco in 1970.
In Africa, music had been central to people’s lives: Music making permeated important life events and daily activities. However, the white colonists of North America were alarmed by and frowned upon the slaves’ African-infused way of worship because they considered it to be idolatrous and wild. As a result, the gatherings were often banned and had to be conducted in a clandestine manner. The African population in the American colonies had initially been introduced to Christianity in the seventeenth century. Uptake of the religion was relatively slow at first. But the slave population was fascinated by Biblical stories containing parallels to their own lives and created spirituals that retold narratives about Biblical figures like Daniel and Moses. As Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population, spirituals served as a way to express the community’s new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes.
The Library of Congress also notes that “publication of collections of spirituals in the 1860s started to arouse a broader interest” in the art form, and that it was the formation of the Jubilee Singers, “a chorus consisting of former slaves from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee,” in the 1870s that led to international attention to spirituals.
Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. profiles the Singers in this episode of Black History in Two Minutes (Or So). As noted in the YouTube description: “By using the highly revered art of spirituals, the choir’s commitment to saving the university is one of their most notable contributions to Black history.”
In 2019, PBS’ American Experience explored the Jubilee Singers in depth.
“Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory,” produced by Llewellyn Smith, tells the story of a group of former slaves who battled prejudice and oppression to sing their way into a nation’s heart. Eventually, they would perform for presidents and queens, tour the United States and Europe, and establish songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “This Little Light of Mine” as a cherished part of the nation’s musical heritage.
Here’s the opening chapter:
Fisk and other HBCUs are lauded for their musical contributions, but their contributions go far beyond these sweet sounds. Fisk’s website notes some historic faculty and alumni.
W.E.B. Du Bois (Fisk class of 1888), the great social critic and co-founder of the NAACP
Booker T. Washington, the great educator who was Du Bois’ famous philosophical adversary as well as the founder of Tuskegee University, served on Fisk’s Board of Trustees, married a Fisk alumna, and sent his children to Fisk
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the crusading journalist, attended Fisk
Charles Spurgeon Johnson, Fisk’s first black president, helped to conceive the modern science of sociology
The distinguished artist Aaron Douglas served on the Fisk faculty for many years, and his murals decorate the walls of the University’s Erastus Milo Cravath Hall
Arna Bontemps, Sterling A. Brown, Robert Hayden, and James Weldon Johnson were among several Fisk faculty members who became major figures in American literature
The acclaimed composer-musicologists John W. Work Sr., John W. Work, Jr., and John W. Work, III were Fisk alumni and members of the faculty
Saint Elmo Brady, one of the first African Americans to achieve eminence in chemistry, was for many years on the Fisk faculty
Elmer Samuel Imes, a Fisk alumnus (Fisk Class of 1903) whose work provided an early verification of quantum theory. His was one of the earliest applications of high resolution infrared spectroscopy and provided the first detailed spectra of molecules, which led to the study of molecular structure through infrared spectroscopy: he chaired the Fisk Physics Department until his death in 1941.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson explores HBCU history and contributions in his 2018 film, Tell Them We Are Rising.
As PBS’ Independent Lens notes:
The rich history of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began before the end of slavery, flourished in the 20th century, and profoundly influenced the course of the nation for over 150 years — yet remains largely unknown. With Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, the latest documentary from Stanley Nelson (Black Panthers, Freedom Riders) and Marco Williams, the powerful story of the rise, influence, and evolution of HBCUs comes to life.
A haven for Black intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries — and a path of promise toward the American dream — HBCUs have educated the architects of freedom movements and cultivated leaders in every field while remaining unapologetically Black for more than 150 years. These institutions have nurtured some of the most influential Americans of our time, from Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois to Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison to Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker to Spike Lee to Common. A key driver of Black social, political and economic progress, HBCUs were also a place of unprecedented freedom for African American students and a refuge from the rampant racism that raged outside the campus walls. Tell Them We Are Rising captures this important history to tell the dynamic story of Americans who refused to be denied a higher education and — in their resistance — created a set of institutions that would influence and shape the landscape of the country for centuries to come.
There is so much history, including a timeline of the schools’ emergence, at HBCU First’s website.
It’s also important that we recognize that HBCUs are not welcomed by everyone, as demonstrated most recently this week.
Here’s hoping the perpetrators of this terrorism are apprehended swiftly. In the face of that ugly vibe, it’s time for some glorious music to chase away the fear.
Oakwood University, an HBCU in Huntsville, Alabama, that was founded in 1896, is home to several choirs, including the Aoelians. The school hosts a biannual “Festival of Spirituals” during Black History Month.
The music “is a spiritual thing that goes back to the Negro experience,” said Dr. Roy Malcolm, a professor of education at Oakwood University and the coordinator of the festival. “We’re not celebrating the pain but experiencing what we’ve gotten from the freedom. We focus on the blessings that the freedom has brought us.”
Oakwood sponsors the festival every other year as a means of preserving the spiritual as an important art form, Malcolm said. Another reason is to provide a platform for Historically Black Colleges and Universities to work together.
“It keeps a friendship, a fellowship with the HBCUs,” Malcolm said.
The school’s 2018 festival, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” featured choirs from Claflin University, Alabama A&M University, Central State University (Wilberforce), the Oakwood University Choir, and the 2017 Choir of the World Winner, the Aeolians of Oakwood University.
The full concert program is over two hours, but I’ve cued to an outstanding performance of “Wade in the Water” followed by “I Got My Ticket” from the Claflin University Concert Choir. Get ready for some goosebumps—you’ll know it when you hear it.
Claflin University is a private HBCU in Orangeburg, South Carolina, founded in 1869. Its choral groups, like those of other HBCUs, may perform in concert halls and travel the globe, but they also visit Black churches.
Claflin students brought the power of their voices to the Bushnell Congregational Church in Detroit, back in 2015. Watch them—and those soloists!—visibly move the congregation with this dramatic performance of “Lord, How Come Me Here?”
COVID-19 has deeply impacted us all, and colleges and universities are no exception. HBCUs are attempting to deal with cancellations of traditional events, particularly the Homecoming activities which are a major event for both students and alumni.
The impact of COVID-19 on one HBCU, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCA&T) a public, historically Black land-grant research university in Greensboro, founded in 1891, was explored in the 2020 documentary, Stay At Homecoming.
This clip from the film features the NC A&T State University Choir Octet, performing “My Soul’s Been Anchored.” It’s amazing what just eight voices can do together.
As right-wing forces attempt to eradicate the teaching of our nation’s history of enslavement, to pretend the Civil War was not fought over slavery, and to downplay the importance of Black people in American history, I wonder if those who are now banning books and curricula will one day call for the banning of the Library of Congress (LOC). The LOC hosts a wealth of historical material online, including a brilliant 2013 performance by the Howard University Chorale and Baltimore City College High School Choir, as part of an LOC symposium on African-American spirituals of the Civil War.
The Howard University Chorale is widely recognized as a definitive interpreter of spirituals and work songs, as well as music by composers of African descent. Their performances have been called “mesmerizingly beautiful” by The Washington Post. The award-winning choir has toured internationally, including performances in Rome, Tokyo, Valencia, Paris, Oxford and the Caribbean. These talented singers notably performed spirituals as part of the February 2010 presentation of PBS’s In Performance at the White House.
The Baltimore City College High School Choir has graced the stage of Carnegie Hall and performed with the Baltimore Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. Their director, Linda R. Hall, is a renowned music educator in the mid-Atlantic region. Her leadership has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Baltimore City Council’s Teacher of the Year Award.
Enjoy the power of these young Black voices.
As a former Howard student, I was delighted to find this informal look at the Howard Gospel Choir, performing “Anoint Me Now (Consecrate),” which illustrates the musical link from spirituals to gospel—the musical backbone of the Black church.
Spirituals and gospel became key elements of the foundational anthems of the Civil Rights Movement; the most well-known is, of course, “We Shall Overcome.”
As the Kennedy Center explains:
“We Shall Overcome” has a long history, with input from many people and places. Part of the melody seems to be related to two European songs from the 1700s, “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners” and “O Sanctissima.” Black slaves in the U.S. mixed and matched similar tunes in the songs “I’ll Be All Right” and “No More Auction Block For Me.”
After 1900, it seems the lyrics of another gospel song “I’ll Overcome Someday,” by the Methodist minister and composer Reverend Dr. Charles Tindley, were added to the musical mix—though the music was very different. Around 1945, gospel arrangers Atron Twigg and Kenneth Morris apparently put together the essential pieces of the now-famous words and melody.
“We’ll Overcome” first appeared as a protest song during a 1945–1946 labor strike against American Tobacco in Charleston, South Carolina. African American women strikers, seeking a pay raise to 30 cents an hour, sang as they picketed. “I Will Overcome” was a favorite song of Lucille Simmons, one of the strikers. But she gave the song a powerful sense of solidarity by changing the “I” into “We” as they sang together. Other lyrics were improvised for pro-union purposes, including “We will organize,” “We will win our rights,” and “We will win this fight.”
In closing, here are the Oakwood Aeolians Alumni doing a virtual rendition of “We Shall Overcome” in 2020, with a powerful message for all of us dealing with the then-fresh pandemic.
After hearing that, surely all we can say is “Yes! We will!”
I hope this journey through HBCU history and their meaningful music has whet your taste for more. For fun, please check out this short HBCU quiz, and see how well you do. As always, please join me in the comments below for more music, and post your own favorites.