The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Great Britain: 1900-1903
I am currently having a delightful correspondence with a gentleman in Dublin, Ireland, who is a member of the Historical Society of Dublin. As some of you are aware, I have been steadily transcribing letters written by my maternal grandmother, Nina Hortense Clinton, during her travels in Great Britain with the Fisk Jubilee Singers under Frederick Loudin. In a letter written in Dublin in 1901, my grandmother mentions that she and the group were filmed with a "cinematograph." Of course, I am now on a mission to find that footage.
Meanwhile, here is a short promotional article on her letters, which will certainly become a book in the near future.
Frederick Loudin's (center) Fisk Jubilee Singers of 1900
Letters to my Parents from the United Kingdom: 1900-1903
By Nina Hortense Clinton
Edited by Nina Kennedy*
While rummaging through my parents’ belongings after their deaths, I happened upon a
small suitcase containing tied bunches of letters addressed to my great-grandparents,
Martin and Cecelia Clinton of Zanesville, Ohio. The author was their 19-year-old daughter,
my grandmother, Nina Hortense Clinton, who was traveling as a member of the “Fisk
Jubilee Singers” under the direction of Frederick Loudin. Mr. Loudin had been a member of
the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured Europe in 1872 to raise money for the
fledgling Fisk Free Colored School. Although Frederick Loudin was no longer officially
affiliated with the Fisk School from 1879 onward, he continued to take his own group of
singers across the globe, advertising them as the “Fisk Jubilee Singers.”
Fortunately, my grandmother’s handwriting was immaculate. These letters have become
historical documents written from the perspective of a young African-American girl visiting
England, Ireland, and Scotland at the turn of the 20th century, and singing for audiences
who - in many cases - have never seen a black person before. Nina Clinton witnesses the
coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, and writes eloquently about her experiences.
My grandmother, Nina Hortense Clinton
Quotes from Letters to my Parents from the United Kingdom: 1900-1903
by Nina Hortense Clinton
My Dear Mama & Papa,
Here we are away out in the Ocean, but we have not lost sight of land.
[...] As soon as we came on ship board, we had our state rooms assigned us. Miss Henson** and I are together and the other three ladies are to room together. It is now five minutes of seven and it has not been long since we left the dinner table. I tell you, the eating is fine. I am afraid such fare will spoil me.
[...] It is now Monday A.M. & I am having some difficulty in writing as the vessel is rocking considerably. There is going to be an entertainment on ship board tonight & as I am going to sing a solo, I went into my trunk & got out my green chally dress to wear on this occasion. We expect to have a fine time. Perhaps some of the girls will expect me to write to them while I am on ship board but I think I shall not write anymore until I am on land. I expect to be able to send this letter tomorrow as we shall be at Queenstown. Thursday, we expect to land at Liverpool & will be in London Friday. I hope to find a letter from home. Give my love to all friends. Now, please write soon. I wish you would give my address to some of the girls so that they can write me before they receive my letters. I think Alex might write, too. My love to all.
Your loving daughter,
Nina H. Clinton
27 Paternoster Row
London E.C., Eng.
In care of Mr. Loudin,
Manager of the Fisk Jubilee Singers”
Since I wrote you last we have visited Sherbourne, a very old historical town, Brixham, & Torquay (pronounced 'Tor key') which is certainly one of the most beautiful towns I ever saw. Thence we came to Newton Abbot and have been here since Thursday. We gave concerts five nights last week and two afternoons making seven concerts in all. The one last Friday night made the twenty second concert we have given so Saturday A.M. Mrs. Loudin gave us our first salary. You can imagine how happy we all were. Mine amounted to of course $35 in American money or 7 pounds, 5 shillings, 10 pence in English money. I understand English money very well now though it was a little puzzling at first. One English penny is equal to two pennies of our money in value and to about one half dozen of them in size. Ha Ha. I know you are not expecting any just now but I know it is needed and I could not put my first salary away without sending you some. I shall soon be able to do better.
I send it with as much love as if it were $50. I shall be so pleased when I have paid for my trunk and have laid away about $60, and then shall be able to send you money every month. I am delighted to think of it as it is what I have been praying that I might be able to do sometime. Next month we shall be giving two concerts a day very often and then it will not take so long to give 22 concerts.”
Jan. 6, 1901
[...] Just think! We have been singing every afternoon & evening for a week. I would like to rest a week now but cannot as we sing in the same large hall every night this week. It's surprising to me the way the people throng to hear us. Some of them pay 2 shillings or about 50 cents for a seat every time they come, too.
Last Monday night (New Year's eve) we sang at a Watch meeting there in the same hall. It was full of people. The meeting began at 8 P.M. & lasted until after midnight. I am sure a large American audience could not be held that long. There was perfect order throughout the meeting. When it was half out, refreshments were served to the singers. I'll send you a programme if I can find one. There were lectures or addresses, singing, a recitation, pictures projected on the screen, etc. The ‘Jubilee Singers,’ however, were a great attraction. They would encore nearly everything we sang. The last piece that was sung before the New Year came in was the duet by Miss Friason and me. After we sang that, all bowed in silent prayer and were thus engaged when the clock struck twelve. Then we sang ‘What a Happy New Year’ and exchanged greetings. That was certainly (four hours) pleasantly spent. The addresses were mostly on the subject of ‘Temperance.’*** You know the Scotch are great people to drink. And, as we drove home that night, or morning rather, between twelve and one o'clock, the streets were lined with drunkards, even women and young boys. It was certainly a pitiable sight. They kept up a continual noise from that time on and when daylight dawned & all day long the streets as well as sidewalks were full of people. The Scottish people do not pay very much attention to Xmas but New Years is a holiday and a time when they allow nothing to prevent them from having a jolly time. They spend the whole day out on the streets, & drunkards are not at all uncommon.
Of course, though, some of these people are as religious & as strictly temperate as anyone could be.
The Landlady of this hotel, for instance. She does not allow a drop of intoxicant about the hotel. She has prayer meeting in the drawing room every night and all of the servants must attend. It looks nice to see them all coming in with clean white aprons and caps on.
I don't know whether I'll go down to the meeting tonight or not for they are always asking us to sing wherever we go and I am really too tired to help with the singing tonight.”
[Regarding the death of Queen Victoria]
Jan. 27, 1901
[...] Of course you have all heard of the death of the ‘Beloved Queen.’ Her illness was of short duration and since it was first reported that she was ill, the people of this country have been extremely anxious & prayerful that she might be spared to rule over them a while longer. But it seemed not to have been the will of God so she died last Wednesday evening at 6:30. Bells were tolled, canon fired, all places of amusement and some business places were closed store windows, churches, etc. are draped with black, the majority of the people are wearing black and everywhere are found signs of grief on account of the death of Her Majesty. You see, she has been reigning for over 60 years and the people had become very much attached to her and were certainly loyal. I only regret that I did not get to see her before she died. Of course, her son, The ‘Prince of Wales’ was made King immediately and the United States President was the first to address him as King Edward VII. I thought that very clever indeed.”
February 10, 1901
[...] Yes, the Queen has passed away and the whole country seems to be submerged in gloom for she was certainly loved by all of her subjects. The shop windows were draped in black and even the people are dressing in mourning for her. As soon as she died, her son became King Edward VII of Great Britain.
I am very sorry that I did not get to see the Queen before she died. I should have considered it quite an honor. Mrs. Loudin went to London to see the funeral procession. She paid $15 for a seat where she could sit & see it. But, it was a grand sight, she says. I suppose you have read all about it in the papers. We sang at the memorial service in Synod Hall Edinburgh last Saturday night and we all dressed in black. Nearly every lady in the large hall (which was packed) was dressed in black and the gentlemen wore black neck ties.”
Feb. 9, 1901
[...] Belfast is a large, modern city, one of the principal cities in Ireland. The Irish people do not seem as foreign to me as I thought they would. But, it is very uncommon for them to see colored people. As soon as they see us walking along, they seem to know us and many will turn around and stare at us & say ‘O! there goes one of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.’"
March 31, 1901
[...] At our concert yesterday P.M. six young men walked in and took prominent seats. Two of them were very dark. They belong to ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin,’ & of course bring in that kind of work, they expected to be admitted to our concert free. But, before admitting them, the man who was taking tickets came and told Mrs. Loudin that there were two 'blackies' outside who wanted to come in & asked if he should allow them to come in. She told him 'yes.' But we were quite amused at his speaking to us of blackies. You see, these people do not think of us as such & hence do not think of our being sensitive to that name. We never let on but talk to them about blackies just as if we were white. If a person is not real dark, it is hardly noticed that you are colored. It is nothing for them to speak to us about 'niggers.' But by that they mean people who black their faces in these shows. They do not mean colored people. So you see, we dare not let on that we are at all sensitive to that word 'Nigger.'
Yes, mama, we would all enjoy very much coming over to have a treat but I am afraid we could not get back in time for concert the next night. Ha Ha. I am glad that prospects are so bright in Zanesville. I think you'll need me at home this summer.
Give my love to all friends. Kiss dear little I.G. for me. With love & kisses for you both, I remain,
Your affectionate daughter,
*Nina Kennedy is the daughter of Matthew Kennedy (who directed the Fisk Jubilee Singers from 1957 to 1986) and Anne Gamble (Nina Clinton Gamble’s daughter), who served as piano accompanist for the Fisk Jubilee Singers under the direction of John W. Work III and his successor, Matthew Kennedy.
**”Miss [Leota] Henson” was the piano accompanist for the group, and Frederick Loudin’s niece. At 18 years of age, she became the first African-American woman to study piano at the Leipzig Conservatory, founded by Felix Mendelssohn in 1843.
*** To clarify, the Temperance Movement in the United States was really an anti-lynching movement. Since many religious leaders associated lynchings with excessive alcohol consumption, they formed ties with prohibitionists. The Fisk Jubilee Singers gave many concerts that were sponsored by Temperance organizations.