The Influence of HBCUs on Spirituals

What are negro spirituals?

Negro spirituals are one of the earliest forms of African American music. It was a genre created and transmitted via the oral tradition that was “divinely inspired” and would also record enslaved Black people’s experiences throughout their days. These songs and the performances of these songs often took place in spaces where enslaved people felt safe and comfortable expressing themselves and worshipping in their way. Initially, African Americans often sang these songs a cappella, but in the post-Civil War era, the arranged/concert spiritual became popular, especially following its use by historically Black colleges and universities.

Negro Spirituals and Fisk University

The first HBCU to use the arranged/concert spiritual was Fisk University. Following the University’s financial struggles, the school treasurer, George White, got the idea to form a traveling music group that would sing across the country and raise money for the school. From this idea, the Fisk Jubilee Singers was formed. The performing group traveled across the country and Europe singing arranged/concert spirituals, making the genre of music extremely popular and well respected. The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ success challenged the current image of Black performers as serious musicians (because at the time, Black performers/music was tied entirely to minstrelsy) and helped put folk/negro spirituals at the forefront of African American expression. This group’s success encouraged other HBCUs to form similar groups, which helped to promote the popularity and performance of arranged/concert spirituals.

Sources: African American Music: An Introduction, 2nd Edition

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