Skip to main content

American Jubilee Choirs, Industrial Capitalism, and Black South Africa


Focusing on the Virginia Jubilee Singers, an African American singing ensemble that toured South Africa in the late nineteenth century, this article reveals how the transnational reach of commercialized black music informed debates about race, modernity, and black nationalism in South Africa. The South African performances of the Jubilee Singers enlivened debates concerning race, labor and the place of black South Africans in a rapidly industrializing South Africa. A visit from the first generation of global black American superstars fueled both white and black concerns about the racial political economy. The sonic actions of the Jubilee Singers were therefore a springboard for black South African claims for recognition as modern, educated and educable subjects, capable of, and entitled to, the full apparatus, and insignia, of liberal self-determination. Although black South Africans welcomed the Jubilee Singers enthusiastically, the article cautions against reading their positive reception as evidence that black Africans had no agenda of their own and looked to African Americans as their leaders in a joint struggle.

Hide All

1 For historical context on uplift ideology see Gaines, Kevin K., Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). For context on nineteenth-century black music see Radano, Ronald, Lying up a Nation: Race and Black Music (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003); Brooks, Daphne, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Schenbeck, Lawrence, Racial Uplift and American Music 1878–1943 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012).

2 See Ward, Andrew, Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).

3 On McAdoo's tours in South Africa see Cockrell, Dale, “Of Gospel Hymns, Minstrel Shows, and Jubilee Singers: Toward Some Black South African Musics,” American Music, 5, 4 (1987), 417–32; Erlmann, Veit, “‘A Feeling of Prejudice’: Orpheus M. McAdoo and the Virginia Jubilee Singers in South Africa, 1890–1898,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 14, 3 (April 1988), 331–50; Campbell, James T., Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Erlmann, Veit, Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Magubane, Zine, Bringing the Empire Home: Race, Class, and Gender in Britain and Colonial South Africa (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004); Coplan, David B., In the Township Tonight! South Africa's Black City Music & Theatre (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007); Vinson, Robert Trent, The Americans Are Coming! Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012); Thelwell, Chinua Akimaro, “Toward a ‘Modernizing’ Hybridity: McAdoo's Jubilee Singers, McAdoo's Minstrels, and Racial Uplift Politics in South Africa, 1890–1898,” Safundi, 15, 1 (2014), 328.

4 Vinson, 13.

5 Magubane, 175.

6 For the textual dimensions of Jubilee choirs see Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), chapter 3; and Cohen, Michael C., The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), chapter 6. On textuality and nineteenth-century spirituals more broadly see Radano, Ronald, ‘Denoting Difference: The Writing of the Slave Spirituals’, Critical Inquiry, 22, 3 (Spring 1996), 506–44; and Radano, Lying up a Nation. See also Jaji's, Tsitsi Ella Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

7 Pike, Gustavus D., The Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1873); Pike, , The Singing Campaign for Ten Thousand Pounds; or, the Jubilee Singers in Great Britain, with an Appendix Containing Slave Songs [compiled and arranged by Seward, Theodore F.] (New York, American Missionary Society, 1875); Marsh, J. B. T., The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1877; first published 1875). See Epstein, Dena J., “The Story of the Jubilee Singers: An Introduction to Its Bibliographic History,” in Wright, Josephine, ed., New Perspectives on Music: Essays in Honor of Eileen Southern (Detroit: Harmonie Park Press, 1992), 151–62, for an introductory textual study.

8 Armstrong, Mary Frances and Ludlow, Helen Wilhelmina, Hampton and Its Students by Two of Its Teachers: With 50 Cabin and Plantation Songs, arranged by Thomas P. Fenner (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1874).

9 Graber, Katie J., “‘A Strange, Weird Effect’: the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the United States and England,” American Music Research Center Journal, 14 (2004), 2752, gives an astute reception study, as does Cohen.

10 See Fisk University: History, Building and Site, and Services of Dedication, at Nashville, January 1, 1876 (New York: Published for the Trustees of the University, 1876); and Richardson, Joe M., A History of Fisk University, 1865–1946 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980).

11 Armstrong and Ludlow, 23.

12 Keegan, Timothy, Colonial South Africa and the Origins of the Racial Order (London: Leicester University Press, 1996).

13 On Imvo see de Kock, Leon, Civilising Barbarians: Missionary Narrative and African Textual Response in Nineteenth-Century South Africa (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996), 105–40; Switzer, Les, “The Beginnings of African Protest Journalism at the Cape,” in Switzer, , ed., South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880s–1960s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5782; Woeber, Catherine, “The Mission Presses and the Rise of Black Journalism,” in Attwell, David and Attridge, Derek, eds., The Cambridge History of South African Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 204–25; Odendaal, André, The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 102–11.

14 For valuable discussion and invaluable translation of Imvo’s Xhosa coverage of the Singers, I am indebted to Khwezi Mkhize, “Empire Unbound: Imperial Liberalism, Race and Diaspora in the Making of South Africak,” PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2015, chapter 1, “‘To see us as we see ourselves’: John Tengo Jabavu, Empire, Colonial Belonging and the Public Sphere,” 27–66.

15 Isigidimi Sama-Xosa, 6 Sept. 1873, 7. All subsequent quotations are from this page.

16 Pike, The Jubilee Singers; Pike, The Singing Campaign; Marsh.

17 Pike, The Jubilee Singers, 49.

18 Ibid., 32.

19 Ibid., 26.

20 Ibid., 28–29.

21 Ibid., 27.

22 Ibid., 27–28.

23 Ibid., 90.

24 Ibid., 88–89.

25 Trotter, James Monroe, Music and Some Highly Musical People (Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard, 1878). On Trotter see Stevenson, Robert, “America's First Black Music Historian,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 26, 3 (Autumn 1973), 383404; Schenbeck, Racial Uplift, chapter 1.

26 Trotter, 255.

27 Mrs. Mossell, N. F., “The Colored Woman in Verse,” AME Church Review, 2 (1885), 63, italics added.

28 Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin, 1989; first published 1903), 204–5.

29 Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers, 32.

30 Trotter, 258, italics added.

31 Marsh, 78.

32 Armstrong and Ludlow, Hampton and Its Students, 23.

33 Ibid., 57.

34 Ibid., 128, original emphasis.

35 Ibid., 131.

36 Ibid., 130–31.

37 Christian Express, 1 Aug. 1885, original emphasis, quoted in de Kock, Civilising Barbarians, 127.

38 See de Kock for details.

39 A useful documentary South African history of this period is Johns, Sheridan III, ed., Protest and Hope 1882–1934 (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1972).

40 Frederickson, George M., Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 4243.

41 As quoted and translated in Mkhize, “Empire Unbound,” 64.

42 Ibid., 64–65.

43 Ibid., 66.

44 Ibid., 43.

45 Ibid., 66.

46 Leselinyana, 1 Oct. 1890, quoted in Erlmann, “A Feeling of Prejudice,” 344.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

49 Mkhize, 67.

50 See Erlmann, Music, Modernity, for details.

51 Imvo, 67, italics added.

52 Quoted in Olwage, Grant, “Discipline and Choralism: The Birth of Musical Colonialism,” in Randall, Annie J., ed., Music, Power, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2005), 2546, 25.

53 Quoted in Shipley, Lori, “Music Education at Hampton Institute, 1868–1913,” Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, 32, 2 (April 2011), 96121, 117.

54 Ibid., 102.

55 Grahamstown Journal, 19 Sept. 1890, 3.

56 Grahamstown Journal, 27 Sept. 1890, 3.

57 All quotations of this Imvo issue, 16 Oct. 1890, come from its third page.

58 Thelwell, “Toward a ‘Modernizing’ Hybridity,” 25.

59 See de Kock, Civilising Barbarians; and Mkhize, “Empire Unbound,” for other examples of Jabavu's citational politics.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-american-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *