It should come as no surprise that archivists love a good commemoration. And commemorations need archives.
What is a commemoration, after all, if not a celebration—a remembrance—of a person or event that took place in the past?
And as it turns out, archivists are in the business of remembering the past.
Juneteenth, arriving this Saturday, June 19th, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Middlebury College first acknowledged Juneteenth in 2020, and we wanted to learn more about the long history of Juneteenth festivities. Our research turned up nearly a century and a half worth of traditions like rodeos, parades, barbecues, and the singing of African American spirituals.
Middlebury’s archives happen to hold recordings of African American spirituals, including this 2011 recording of ”Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” featuring François Clemmons and the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir.
But truly remembering the past takes a little more digging. We turned to our rare book collection and found “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on page twenty of this paperback songbook published in 1887: Jubilee and plantation songs: characteristic favorites, as sung by the Hampton students, Jubilee singers, Fisk University students, and other companies, also, a number of new and pleasing selections. (See this book in MIDCAT here.)
One of the featured groups, The Jubilee Singers, caught our eye. The Jubilee Singers were an ensemble of a cappella singers at Fisk University, the historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. Devised as a fundraiser for the struggling school, the group was comprised of both men and women, all but two formerly enslaved and many still teenagers. (And in fact, all of the groups featured in this little paperback are students enrolled at historically Black colleges or universities.)
The Jubilee Singers popularized African American spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down, Moses.” For the first time, primarily white audiences heard songs that blended the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade with biblical stories. The Jubilee Singers performed for U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House and Queen Victoria in England. As they traveled the country, they were often denied food and lodging by segregated hotels and restaurants.
The first known sound recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” from 1909, features the Jubilee Singers. Here’s an archival copy of that recording, from Archive.org.
To learn more about the Jubilee Singers, watch Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory an episode of “American Experience” on PBS.
To learn more about Juneteenth, visit the The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth at the The National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Learn more about Helen Hartness Flanders here.
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