Book Excerpt: Dark Midnight When I Rise
The Story of the Jubilee Singers who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America
By Andrew Ward
Published by FSG; May 2000; $27.00 US/$43.00 CAN; 0-374-18771-1
Click on the image above
to purchase this book
Dark Midnight When I Rise tells the story of a troupe of young ex-slaves and freedmen whose odyssey from cotton field and auction block to concert stage and throne room is one of the most remarkable trajectories in American history. Singing the sacred hymns of their ancestors, the Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced the world to African American music. They enchanted such luminaries as Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, and Prime Minister William Gladstone, and demonstrated to millions of white Americans and Europeans the courage, dignity, and intelligence of African Americans.
The Jubilees set out in the fall of 1871 to raise money for Nashville’s nearly bankrupt Fisk University, one of many black schools established after the Civil War to teach reading and writing to the tens of thousands of emancipated slaves who clamored for an education. Ejected from hotels and railroad cars, shivering in the winter cold, the bedraggled singers performed along the route of the old Underground Railway to Brooklyn, where, a few days before Christmas, they sang for Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church congregation. They caused such a sensation that soon they were raising thousands of dollars a week performing to overflow audiences up and down the Eastern Seaboard. After tours of Great Britain, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany, they not only rescued Fisk but built it into one of the nation’s preeminent African American institutions of higher learning.
The Jubilees introduced scores of spirituals, from "Steal Away" to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," with such soulful artistry they moved throngs to tears. But their contribution extended beyond their music. Forced to do daily battle with American racism in the dark midnight of Reconstruction, they bravely denounced segregation from choir lofts and concert stages, forcing the issue of discrimination onto the world’s front pages. In their wake, Northern hotels, railroads, and schools opened their doors to blacks.
Their success came at great cost. The eloquent Benjamin Holmes, who had taught himself to read as a slave, died of tuberculosis. Pious Julia Jackson, who as a small girl had helped her relatives escape from bondage, suffered a paralytic stroke. Frail, stalwart Ella Sheppard, the matriarch of the Jubilees, nearly died of pneumonia after seven years of unceasing toil. As they struggled to overcome exploitation and prejudice, the Jubilees transformed American music forever, foreshadowing the triumphs and travails of thousands of black performers.
Based on the singers’ own letters, memoirs, and diaries, Dark Midnight When I Rise is a compelling and deeply moving testament to the inherent decency of all men and women, and the power of art to change the heart of a nation.
ANDREW WARD is the author of numerous books, including Out Here: A Newcomer’s Notes from the Great Northwest and, most recently, Our Bones Are Scattered, his acclaimed account of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 for which he won the Washington Governor’s Award. A former contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and columnist for The Washington Post, Ward originated and cowrote a documentary about the Jubilee Singers for WGBH’s The American Experience. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.
"A remarkable book…sheds vivid light on the post-Civil War experience of America’s blacks. Ward doesn’t flinch from telling the truth about prejudice and hostility to blacks, North and South. But the power of the music in these singers’ hearts makes their story — and Dark Midnight When I Rise — a triumph."
–Thomas Fleming, author of Hours of Gladness
The following is an excerpt from the book Dark Midnight When I Rise
by Andrew Ward
Published by FSG; May 2000; $27.00 US/$43.00 CAN; 0-374-18771-1
Copyright © 2000 Andrew Ward
GOD’S OWN TIME
In the late 1860s, students excavating the grounds of a Nashville freedmen’s school called Fisk University made a gruesome discovery. Digging just beneath the surface of the earth, they came upon heaps of chains and manacles from Porter’s SlaveYard, where, up to the time of Yankee occupation, enslaved men, women, and children had been bought and sold. They did not let these rusted relics of their bondage lie buried. They gathered them together instead and sold them for scrap iron and, with the proceeds, bought Bibles and spellers, turning the instruments of their enslavement into the agencies of their liberation.
The Jubilee Singers would use the same alchemy to champion the freedmen and rescue their school from oblivion. Impoverished, bedraggled, half starved, they took the secret, sacred hymns of their bondage and not only "sang up the walls of a great university" but taught the nation and the world an enduring lesson about the dignity and educability of black Americans.
The matriarch of the Jubilees was a frail, tenacious former slave named Samuella Sheppard. She was quintessentially American: her ancestors were Indian, African, and white. Her maternal great-grandmother, Rosa, was the free, full-blooded daughter of a Cherokee chief. But in order to remain with her enslaved African husband, himself the son of a chief, she lived as a slave of the Donelsons, one of the founding families of Nashville and the inlaws of General Andrew Jackson. Whenever the Donelsons gave her trouble, Rosa would return to her tribe, threatening vengeance on anyone who might try to mistreat her enslaved children in her absence. Rosa had fourteen children and lived to the age of 109. Among her daughters was Ella Sheppard’s grandmother, Rebecca, who married a fellow Donelson slave and gave birth to twelve children, including Ella’s mother, Sarah Hannah Sheppard.
Ella Sheppard’s paternal grandfather was James Glover Sheppard, a white planter who had moved from North Carolina to Hernando, Mississippi, in the early 1800s. Glover Sheppard sired at least one black child by his female slaves: a bright, enterprising boy named Simon. When Glover’s white son, Benjamin Harper Sheppard, married Andrew Jackson’s grandniece, Phereby Donelson, the slaves of both families were combined into one household and lived on Phereby’s father’s Nashville estate about a mile from the Cumberland River.
Sarah was a slave playmate of Phereby’s children and grew into a voluble but pious and capable domestic servant. Though marriages between slaves were not legally binding, in about 1844, seventeen-year-old Sarah was wedded to Harper Sheppard’s slave half brother, Simon, who worked for the family as a coachman. Having risen to the position of the white Sheppards’ head nurse and housekeeper, Sarah gave birth, in February 1851, to a frail, skinny baby daughter she named Samuella, or Ella for short.
When Ella Sheppard was about three years old, Sarah discovered that her mistress had trained the child to spy on her. This was common enough in slaveholders’ households. With buttered biscuits and sweet cakes, owners bribed black children to inform on parents suspected of shirking, sabotage, plotting escapes or insurrections; there are even stories of owners posting parrots in their fields and cookhouses to act — or so they told their slaves — as spies.
"I had made my first report, which the mistress had magnified, and threatened mother," Ella recalled.
Stung by this revelation and realizing that it would lead eventually to the alienation of our affection and teach me to lie and deceive, in agony of soul and despair she caught me up in her arms, and while rushing to the river to end it all, was overtaken by Mammy Viney, who cried out, "Don’t you do it, Honey. Don’t you take that that you cannot give back." She raised her eyes to Heaven and said, "Look, Honey, don’t you see the clouds of the Lord as they pass by? The Lord has got need of this child."
In another version, the old slave’s name was Aunt Cherry, and her prophecy was even more explicit: “God’s got great work for this baby to do,” she is supposed to have said. "She’s going to stand before kings and queens."’
Whatever it was Sarah was told, she hugged "her helpless baby to her breast" and walked "back into slavery to await God’s own time."
Major Harper allowed his half brother, Simon, to hire himself out. For several years, Simon worked as a liveryman at the Hermitage with an industrious freedman named William Napier, the father of James Carroll Napier, the "Frederick Douglass of the South," and with "Uncle Alfred" Jackson, Old Hickory’s head coachman. Simon eventually bought his own freedom for eighteen hundred dollars and began saving another thirteen hundred dollars toward purchasing Sarah’s liberty as well.
In 1854, Harper Sheppard and his family moved out of their Nashville home and lingered briefly at the Hermitage in preparation for their move to a plantation in Okolona, Mississippi. Up to then, Phereby Sheppard seemed resigned to Simon’s purchasing and manumitting her head housekeeper. But one night, Sarah overheard Phereby tearfully confess to her husband that she had simply pretended to agree to sell Sarah to Simon in order not to prolong Sarah’s grief at their separation. The major implored her to let Simon buy her freedom, but Phereby was adamant.
"Sarah shall never belong to Simon," she declared. "She is mine and she shall die mine. Let Simon get another wife."
In her despair, Sarah considered drowning herself and her daughter, but by the next morning she had decided to seek out her mistress instead. She told her that if Phereby allowed Simon to purchase Ella, Sarah would remain her faithful slave. But if she refused to let Ella go, she would kill herself and her daughter.
"My baby," she told her mistress simply, "will never be a slave."
Phereby knew this was no idle threat. In a recent — but by no means unique — case in Nashville, a mother who had been sold and separated from her three small daughters had gathered them together, slit their throats, laid them out side by side, and killed herself.
Phereby gave in. The next day, Simon was allowed to purchase his daughter for $350 and keep her with him in Nashville. Jimmie Sheppard, Sarah’s father, promised his desolate daughter "that she would be free and that she would yet join her daughter, and spend her last days under her own vine and fig tree." But, as Major Sheppard’s caravan rumbled southward, that day seemed far away.
Ella’s father, Simon, eventually acquired a livery stable, four carriages, and eight horses and lived among the barbers, grocers, ministers, hack drivers, and tradesmen that constituted the upper echelon of Nashville’s freedmen community. Recognizing that the Sheppards would never release Sarah to him, Simon borrowed enough money to purchase a new wife, Cornelia Rohelia, for thirteen hundred dollars, and to send little Ella to school.
Nashville’s "educational facilities &c." were so impressive that the city dubbed itself the "Athens of the South." "We have one of the most flourishing Medical Colleges in the Union," raved a booster, "and another being established. Our Female Academy and female Schools are unsurpassed. Our high school is a fixed fact, and is doing as much good for Nashville as any one thing among the many good things we have here."’ But black schools were not among them. Before the war, the city council tabled or voted down resolutions to permit schools for freedmen, and black schools had to operate in secret. But no matter how circuitous the route children took every morning, nor how staggered the nocturnal shifts in which they arrived and departed, it was impossible to run such a school undetected. A few slave owners allowed their slave children to attend, but not one white Nashvillian donated so much as a dime, nor did any intervene to protect teachers and students from attack.
Black schools were few in the North, scarcer still in the antebellum South. The first recorded African American school in Nashville had been opened in 1833 by a black barber named Alonso M. Sumner. But within two months, Sumner had been accused of forging passes and corresponding with fugitive slaves. Whipped almost to death by a white mob, he was "compelled to leave the state, never to return." In 1841, Sumner’s assistant barber, a Disciples of Christ preacher named Daniel Wadkins, resolved to continue his exiled mentor’s work. He hired a white teacher, who taught about thirty black pupils for a few months before moving on to less hazardous pastures. A year later, Wadkins himself defiantly and heroically stepped up to the chalkboard. Though forced to move from place to place to avoid detection, he somehow sustained his little academy for fourteen years, teaching both free and enslaved black children on the sly; it was in one of his schools that James Carroll Napier first learned his alphabet.
At the time Ella Sheppard entered his school, Wadkins was an old man. "He was a typical ‘John Bull’ in appearance and an ‘Uncle Sam’ in vivacity," she remembered.
He used the old Webster blue back spelling book. Each class stood up against the wall, head erect, hands down, toes straight. I recall only three classes: the Eb, Ib, Ob class; the Baker, Maker, Taker class; and the Republication, Replication class. They spelled in unison in a musical intonation, swaying their bodies from side to side, with perfect rhythmical precision on each syllable, which we thought grand. Mr. [Wadkins] gave out each word with such an explosive jerk of the head and spring around the body, that it commanded our profound respect. His eyes seemed to see every one in the room, and woe be to the one who giggled or was inattentive, whether pupil or visitor, for such a one constantly felt a whack from his long rattan. We little visitors soon learned to spell many of the words of each class and sang them at our homes.
In the middle of the John Brown insurrection scare of 1859, a gang of whites warned Wadkins that if he did not close his school he had better "watch out for the consequences." Before he found out what they might be, the city council officially closed him down and a year later also shut down William Napier’s humble academy for free black children." When Wadkins reopened his school, the police abruptly shut him down again, citing evidence that his students "contemplated a general insurrection." At the beginning of the Civil War, there were apparently no black schools operating in Nashville.
Ella Sheppard would see her natural mother, Sarah, only once before the outbreak of the Civil War. When Sarah had reached Okolona, Mississippi, conditions among the plantation’s slaves proved so hideous that the mere sight of the field hands and their families standing in rags along the route to the mansion house had reduced her and her mistress to tears and prayer.
For three years, they had labored to improve the condition of the major’s field hands and convert them to Christianity. When Ella was about six years old, Major Harper Sheppard brought Sarah with him on a visit to Nashville and arranged for Sarah to see her daughter. "But when she came to leave me," Ella recalled, "she found it so hard, and screamed so loud, that they said she never should see me again."
Ella’s stepmother, Cornelia, did everything for Ella "that [my] own mother could." But her status as the slave wife of a freedman was perilous. Though self-sustaining African Americans like Simon Sheppard were more secure in Tennessee than in Mississippi, some lived in a kind of twilight: neither slave nor free. The barber James Thomas, for instance, was a biracial slave but lived as a freedman, thanks to a benignly neglectful master and the protection of influential patrons like Andrew Jackson. But after his former master and half brother moved to Mississippi, Simon Sheppard enjoyed no such protection, and when, six months before the outbreak of the Civil War, he fell into debt, he suddenly found the freedom of his wife and daughter in jeopardy. He had neglected to take out manumission papers on either of them, and though he was free, his wife and daughter could now be claimed by his creditors to settle his debts. Tipped off that they intended to do just that, a penniless Simon Sheppard fled with his family 270 miles north to Cincinnati, in the free state of Ohio.
You want to know where we is from?
It sure will make you shiver
We’s from that there old Ragtown
On the old Cincinnati River.
The sixth-largest city in the nation, Cincinnati was laid out on the Philadelphia model, amid hills overlooking a broad expanse of the Ohio River and the slave state of Kentucky beyond. During a visit in 1842, the usually disapproving Charles Dickens wrote that he had rarely " seen a place that commends itself so favorably and pleasantly to a stranger at the first glance as [Cincinnati] does; with its clean houses of red and white, its well paved roads, and footways of bright tile."
seen a place that commends itself so favorably and pleasantly to a stranger at the first glance as [Cincinnati] does; with its clean houses of red and white, its well paved roads, and footways of bright tile."
For up to ten weeks of the year, the river was choked with ice, across which one of Cincinnati’s most distinguished residents, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had imagined a runaway slave girl and her baby trying to flee to freedom. Cincinnati had inspired another mythologizer of the American
In February 1861, newly elected president Abraham Lincoln paused here on his "long, ominous journey to Washington." Until then, Cincinnati had owed its prosperity to its trade with the South. The city packaged the South’s hams, shipped its tobacco, milled its cotton. Though the Queen City was a notorious port of entry for fugitive slaves, its movers and shakers tried not to give off even a whiff of abolitionist sentiment to their Southern customers. They did not interfere when a pro-slavery mob destroyed an abolitionist press and chased its editor out of town, and the mayor forbade the police from interfering when Southern sympathizers drove the antislavery orator Wendell Phillips from the stage of the Pike Theater and threatened to lynch him.
In 1829, there had been more than two thousand blacks in Cincinnati. But the growth of their numbers had so alarmed local whites that they invoked Ohio’s "black laws" and demanded that all black residents show security or get out of town. During a three-day riot, a mob burned down the printing press of the same Alonso Summer who had been chased out of Nashville for teaching school. More than a thousand African Americans left the city.
Local whites were divided, though by no means equally, among three groups: proponents of slavery, abolitionists, and advocates of colonization. Bridging the gap between the latter two was the nationally prominent theologian Lyman Beecher, who arrived in 1832 to run the fledgling Lane Theological Seminary. It was commonly said at the time that America had two great assets: the flag and the Beecher family. So driven that he used to shovel heaps of sand from one corner of his basement to the other just for the exercise, Lyman Beecher raised seven sons into manhood, every one of whom became a minister, including the leading American divine of his day, and one of the most ardent champions of the jubilee Singers, Henry Ward Beecher. Lyman’s daughters were no less impressive: some would credit — or blame — Harriet’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for precipitating the Civil War; Catherine became a champion of women’s education and, with Harriet, a founder of the field of home economics.
Lyman Beecher tried to reconcile Cincinnati’s abolitionists with the colonizationists. But his students would have none of it. In 1834, they renounced all schemes to return blacks to Africa and, declaring themselves staunch abolitionists, set out to evangelize among the impoverished African American residents of Ragtown. When Lane’s tremulous trustees ordered the students to cease their agitation, a brilliant senior named Theodore Weld persuaded fifty-three students to leave Lane and eventually proceed — most of them — to abolitionist Oberlin College, which would become the principal training ground for Fisk University’s missionary faculty.
As Cincinnati became a major stopover on the Underground Railway, members of the Beecher family had helped hide runaway slaves. In fact, Harriet would base some of her characters on the fugitive slaves she and her husband sheltered in their Cincinnati home. When a pro-slavery mob menaced the black community, Henry Ward Beecher strapped on a pistol and rose to its defense. Catherine Beecher worked to provide schools for African American children. But from the wreckage of his seminary, Lyman Beecher denounced the excesses of the proponents of slavery and abolition alike, whose "infatuation," he had concluded, must have been "permitted by Heaven for purposes of national retribution. "
Despite the city fathers’ staunch pro-slavery line, when the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Cincinnati turned against its Southern customers. Within a week in every public park, regiments of Irish and German recruits stumbled through the Union army’s drills and exercises. Some ten thousand Cincinnatians volunteered for Union regiments and Home Guard companies, one of them named Storer’s Rifles after a bombastic local judge and consisting of "old, mostly wealthy, gray-headed men, some of them very obese, with aldermanic protuberances. "
Of all the Union’s major cities, prosperous, bustling Cincinnati was the most vulnerable to Southern attack. After Confederates chased a large Union, force out of Richmond, Kentucky, in August 1862, the vaunting rebel general Kirby Smith advanced on Cincinnati. On September 4, Union general Lew Wallace, the future author of Ben Hur, rushed to the city’s rescue, suspending all commerce, declaring martial law, and fortifying the city’s defenses with every resource at his disposal.
Until General Wallace’s arrival, Cincinnati’s pro-slavery mayor had ignored the pleas of the city’s black men to serve the Union cause. But now Irish police rounded them up from Ragtown and the waterfront and drove them into guarded pens to create a captive pool of laborers for the city’s barricades. "Often bare-headed and in shirtsleeves," they were marched out to the southern approaches to the city, where they eventually dug three miles of entrenchments.
Ella’s father, Simon, could not have escaped the labor dragnet. A white observer described the workers on their daily marches to the city’s outskirts:
Starting back on the honest, substantial, coal-black foundation, all shades of color were exhibited, degenerating out through successive gradations to an ashy white, the index of Anglo-Saxon fatherhood of the chivalrous American type. Arrayed for dirt-work in their oldest clothes, apparently the fags of every conceivable kind of cast-off, kicked-about, and faded-out garments; crownless and lop-eared hats, diverse boots; with shouldered pick, shovel, and hoe; this merry, chattering, piebald, grotesque body, shuffled along amid grins and jeers.
Despite the grins and jeers, they saved Cincinnati Peering at her defenses through his telescope, Kirby Smith wisely abandoned his designs on the Queen City and in the midst of a thunderstorm beat a "ruinous" retreat. "When the history of Cincinnati during the past two weeks comes to be written," said Wallace in his farewell address, "it will be said that it was the spades and not the guns that saved the city.""
Without the protection of his white Sheppard patrons, Ella Sheppard’s bankrupt father did not prosper in Cincinnati. "We had literally nothing to start with," Ella recalled, "but collected household furniture piece by piece." Her stepmother took in washing and ironing and eventually opened a small boardinghouse.
Up to the age of twelve, Sheppard attended the Seventh Street school, a holdover from the days of the Lane Theological Seminary disruption, where she proved bright and almost agonizingly conscientious. But Ella was a tense rail of a girl and so frail that she had to drop out for long periods. Amid the damps and drafts and stinking open drains of Ragtown, she was prone to respiratory and ear infections that rendered her a semi-invalid for two entire years of her early adolescence.
She had large gray eyes and a thin upper lip and usually wore her hair in a small, tight bun that accentuated the elongated oval of her face. In her heyday as a Jubilee Singer, portraitists had a difficult time capturing her.
When a German artist found her face and mouth particularly "difficult to get," her mentor, George White, joked that it was "because there is no expression to catch." But there was an innate dignity about her, a gravitas in her slender frame, that made her stand out among the free blacks of Cincinnati.
She possessed a true if not robust soprano voice and an aptitude for music that induced a local German lady to tutor her. Despite her ill health, Ella continued her lessons for a year and a half and, with her long, slender fingers and delicate sensibility, developed into an accomplished pianist. Her father purchased an old piano for her on which she practiced constantly. But in 1865, when she was fourteen years old, the desperately pestilential conditions in Ragtown caught up with the Sheppards and brought Ella’s childhood to an end.
Copyright © 2000 Andrew Ward and The Multiracial Activist