Monday, August 10, 2015

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Ulster, August 1873 ... and Joseph G McKee of Anahilt & Nashville (1832–1868)

McKee Portrait from Free At Last
Joseph G McKee
Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee was established in 1865 as a result of the earlier influences and pioneering educational work of County Down man Joseph G McKee of Loughaghery (south of Anahilt), among the 'freedmen' - former Black slaves. He emigrated as a teenager and studied at Westminster College in Philadelphia, became an itinerant Presbyterian preacher in Nebraska & Kansas before coming to Nashville in 1863. In Nashville he set up various schools for Black people, which eventually developed into Fisk University. Some years later, Fisk fell upon hard times and needed innovative methods of fundraising to keep its doors open. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were 'born'.

Fisk Singers The Fisk Jubilee Singers come to Ulster 
A group of 11 black students formed the Jubilee choir which toured the US and Europe, including Charles Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, and later to Belfast (at the Ulster Hall) and Londonderry (at First Derry Presbyterian Church) as a short hop after their Scottish dates. And of course they visited Portrush and the Giants Causeway, to collect specimens for the University collection.

The coverage of the time, and the warmth and enthusiasm with which they were received, was exemplary. 

"… the Jubilee Singers were esteemed by the citizens of Derry as another company of young people turning back a tide of ignorace, cruelty and prejudice…" – from The Singing Campaign for Ten Thousand Pounds ; or the Jubilee Singers in Great Britain by Rev Gustavus D Pike (1875)

McKee's return to Ulster, and death aged 36
McKee, in poor health, returned to Anahilt to spend the summer and autumn of 1865 with his parents. As you'll see below in the letter written by his uncle, Joseph G McKee died on 25 September 1868 "burned out" by his efforts, at the home of his father in law, Rev. James Arbuthnot, of Harshville, Adams County, Ohio, five years before his young Jubilee Singer protegés visited Ulster. It is a shame we know so little of him here today.

The Singing Campaign for Ten Thousand Pounds can be read online here.
• A PhD dissertation on the subject, and McKee, by Crystal A. deGregory is online here.
• The portrait of McKee above is from Free at Last by Jane Collins (1896), online here.

Postscript - Joseph McKee was interested in his own ancestry, and in his visit home he inspired his relatives at Annahilt to compile a family tree. This was eventually published, in great detail, as A History of the Descendants of David McKee of Anahilt, by Prof James Y McKee in Philadelphia in 1892. It can be read online here, including a dramatic account of how Joseph was almost lost at sea in an Eagle Wing-esque storm.

McKees School

Fisk Singers 2

Fisk Singers 3 Fisk Singers 5 Fisk Singers 4 Fisk Singers 7

Fisk Singers 6

McKees Bio


Andrew Ward said...

Thank you for your article on Joseph McKee, who features in the early chapters of my book, Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. He was a truly heroic figure, and though his establishment competed, and, in the end, lost its preeminence to the Fisk enterprise and its sponsor, the American Missionary Association, he was a remarkably tenacious toiler among the Contrabands of Nashville, and deserves a memorial plaque. "Tell me not of Burmah's heathen," he versified to his brother in India, "Far away o'er oceans' foam./Teach them, teach them who can reach them/We have heathen nearer home."