A bittersweet and movingly told story of the African-American singers who introduced Negro spirituals to audiences in the US and Europe to raise money for their alma mater, experiencing great triumphs and humiliating prejudice in the process.
Ward (Our Bones are Scattered, not reviewed) begins the story in Nashville, Tennessee, as the Civil War ends and hundreds of freed slaves flock to the city. While rival church groups worked to establish schools, Ward concentrates on the institute founded by the America Missionary Association. Named after General Fisk, the head of the local Freedmen's Bureau, it eventually became known as Fisk University. By 1871, with Fisk deeply in debt and facing possible closure, George White, a devout abolitionist and music lover, decided that Fisk's only hope was for him to take a group of his nine best singers, men and women, on the road to raise money. Singing Negro spirituals, still unfamiliar to many in the North, they performed in halls and churches from Ohio to Massachusetts. Emboldened by their success but still needing money, White then took the group abroad. Ward vividly details their three lengthy tours that included visits to England (where they were guests of William Gladstone and sang for Queen Victoria) and Europe (where they performed for the Dutch and German royalty). They raised more that $150,000 (the equivalent of $2.5 million today), but it was at a cost: White was worn out, his successors overprogrammed the singers, the singers quarreled (and some left), and in the US they had to endure abuse, stay in inferior lodgings, and travel in segregated trains. But their songs were embraced by a whole new audience, moved by the melodies and words of hope.
Very readable history of a forgotten period and a group that saved their school and taught the world to sing their songs.