North West Migrants Forum

Story of famed gospel singing group being explored as part of North West Migrants Forum project

Main photo: An incarnation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the group credited with bringing gospel music to Europe. The Jubilee Singers played a number of sell-out concerts in Derry’s Guildhall.

THE fascinating story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers – credited with introducing gospel music to the UK – is being explored as part of the North West Migrants Forum’s Black History Project.

It is 150 years since the original Jubilee Singers first toured Northern Ireland, performing in Derry’s Guildhall and Belfast’s Grosvenor Hall.

At the time the concerts were considered groundbreaking as the singing group brought with them an African-American a capella sound not previously heard in this part of the world.

The Jubilee singers were organised as a part of a fundraising effort on behalf of Fisk University, an historically black college in Nashville.

In 1871 the university was facing serious financial challenges and possible closure. In a bid to raise funds George Leonard White, a missionary dedicated to music and proving African Americans were the intellectual equals of whites, gathered together four black men and five black women.

The Fisk Singers were born and in early 1872 they performed at the World’s Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival in Boston before being invited to sing at the White House by President Ulysses S Grant.

It was the following year that they first ventured beyond the USA, appearing in halls all over Europe, including in Northern Ireland.

Writing in 1875 after the Jubilee Singers performed in the Guildhall, Rev Gustavus D Pike said they were “esteemed by the citizens of Derry as another company of young people turning back the tide of ignorance, cruelty and prejudice”.

Press reports from the time reveal how as many as 7,000 people queued in Belfast to hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers every weekend they were in town.

Nina Clinton in her early 20s, right around the time she was touring with the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

As part of the North West Migrants Forum’s Black History Project, Programmes Manager Naomi Green has tracked down Nina Kennedy, grand-daughter of Fisk singer Nina Clinton.

During her travels throughout Europe, Nina Clinton documented in detail what she saw and the people she met. She sent her wonderfully colourful observations back to her parents in letters which often ran to several pages.

The letters have become historical documents written from the perspective of a young African-American girl visiting Ireland, England and Scotland at the turn of the 20th century and singing for audiences who, in many cases, had never set eyes on a black person before.

The story of The Fisk Jubilee Singers is now being collated and will form part of a major exhibition set to be unveiled by the North West Migrants Forum in 2024.

Thanking everyone who has contributed to her research so far, Programmes Manager Naomi Green said, “I really appreciate Nina Kennedy for sharing her grandmother’s letters with us.

“It is amazing to read her words 120 years later and we were even able to find a photo of Nina taken during one of her visits to Belfast.

“It is important to recognise these often-forgotten influences on our lives and histories.

“We may live on an island, but we were not unconnected with the rest of the world and it is important these stories are told.”

Watch a video shot by UTV NI about the Jubilee Singers and about our project here: