Fisk University opened in Nashville, Tennessee in 1866 as the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” On October 6, 1871 a music teacher at the school, George L. White, traveled with a nine-member choral ensemble of students on tour to raise money for the University. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the 17,000 visitors to the Garfield farm during the campaign of 1880. The story of their visit is below.
On September 30, 1880, the ensemble were in Painesville, Ohio fulfilling an engagement. The singers asked the Republican candidate for president, James A. Garfield, if they could come to his home in Mentor – the site of his campaign – and sing for him.
Upon their arrival, Garfield gave the performers coffee and fruit. A few neighbors were invited and they all gathered in the parlor. Listening to the repertoire of “vibrant but mournful spirituals,” the audience became increasingly emotional. “Tears were trickling down the cheeks of many of the women, and one staid old man blubbered audibly behind a door.” After the performance, Garfield rose and “standing at ease besides the fireplace with his hand resting lightly on the mantle,” he began talking to the crowd. According to his secretary, Joseph Stanley-Brown, Garfield said that he understood the needs and desires of a “race out of place” and finished his talk with “clear, ringing tones,” stating, “And I tell you now, in the closing days of this campaign, that I would rather be with you and defeated than against you and victorious.”
To learn more about the Fisk Jubilee Singers and hear a sample of their music, visit their website at fiskjubileesingers.org.