Second of two parts
Maggie Porter came into the world born a slave in Wilson County and engaged in the first three tours that took the Fisk Jubilee Singers to the Midwest and Northeast U.S. and across the Atlantic to Great Britain and Europe.
The soprano, who occasionally forgot her lines, proved to be the group’s prima donna. She also could rub her choral mates the wrong way and at one point was banished from the group for three months.
In his book, “The Jubilee Singers and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars,” Gustavus D. Pike recorded a few details of Porter’s childhood days as told to him by a close friend of the singer.
The confidant shared that Maggie L. Porter was born Feb. 24, 1853, in Lebanon. (Note: Her death certificate states she was born Feb. 14, 1857.) Her master was Henry Frazier, who owned about 200 slaves.
Born to Ellen Boone, a house servant, Porter stayed around the house as a playmate for the cotton plantation owner’s son, “Mass Henry.” Shortly before the war, Frazier left for Nashville, bringing his servants with him.
When word came that the Union soldiers were closing in on the city, Frazier went to Mississippi, taking Porter’s father and sisters but left Porter and her mother to care for the house. When the Civil War ended, her family was set free, and her father, Willis Porter, set sail for Liberia with fellow freedmen and was never heard from again. Frazier hired out Porter’s mother to another family, thus the 12-year-old girl was one of 300 students to enter Fisk School in January 1866.
“For two years Maggie was constantly in school,” wrote Pike. “Then there came a call from the board of education for teachers in the country colored schools. Professor Ogden, Superintendent of Fisk School, read this call to his pupils, and Maggie was one of the first to offer her services. She was examined by the commissioners, received a second-grade certificate and appointed to the school at Bellevue, 17 miles from Nashville. She was then 15 years old. Her school commenced in the fall, averaged 35 scholars, and she received $35 a month.
“There was much opposition to colored schools in that region; but she experienced no special difficulty until Christmas time. Then her friends, knowing what a time of excess Christmas week often proves in the South and fearing violence, thought it best for her to be away, and she spent the vacation with her mother in Nashville. Returning the first Monday of the new year to reopen her school, she found her school a heap of ashes on the ground. No definite clue to the incendiaries could ever be obtained, but probably the house was burned by the Ku-klux (sic), as the surest way of ridding themselves of a colored school. The school was then moved five miles to another station; but to such a region of violence that Maggie did not return.
“Her second school was at Mount Vernon, 12 miles on the Chattanooga road. Here she taught in a rough log building, having a rock chimney and broad fireplace; one log window without any sash, but with a board blind; and benches that were simply logs split open and supported by sticks. Here school numbered 42 pupils, and she taught two full terms but was suddenly brought to a stop in the middle of the third by a lack of funds in the treasury.
“Not disheartened, she at once made another trial. Her third school was a private Baptist school, in Murfreesboro, and she taught from October to February when the numbers became small, and the trustees could no longer support it.”
During this time Fisk treasurer George L. White planned to produce a contemporary cantata, “Esther, the Beautiful Queen,” using Black students. He chose Porter for the lead role. After reading the music, she commented that she liked her parts, saying, “I see they require a great deal of hard work to sing them well. … I shall do my best toward doing both the school and myself credit.”
Reflecting on those early years in Nashville, Porter confessed she used to sit on the curb with her feet in the gutter listening to the church choir. “Finally I got courage enough to sit on the last step and listen to the music, and the leader asked me if I wanted to go up and hear the music,” she said.
Inspired by Jenny Lynn, the famed opera singer known as “the Swedish nightingale,” Porter dreamt of singing so sweetly that it would “get the people to cry.” After White selected her for Esther over lighter-skinned young Black women, she said, “It raised cain! Some of the members didn’t like it a bit.”
The performance was a success, and the next fall, Porter set out with her fellow Jubilee Singers on their renowned singing tour, an odyssey that lasted seven years and saved Fisk from bankruptcy.
After their last concert, she decided to stay in Germany for a while. Later she came back to Nashville where, in 1882, she and her Canadian husband, tenor Daniel Cole, established their own company, the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers, which featured former choir mates Minnie Tate, Georgia Gordon and Jennie Jackson. They performed across the U.S., Canada and Europe during that decade.
The troupe later took on the name of Mumford’s Fisk Jubilee Singers as a white man, Charles Mumford, managed the group and took them on a tour of Europe in 1896, making stops in Sweden, Russia, Finland and Lapland.
Those heady days must have brought back memories from when she and the first Jubilees performed in the presence of Queen Victoria.
“Poor ignorant me!” Porter recollected of that occasion. “I received the greatest disappointment of my life. The Queen wore no crown, no robes of state. She was like many English ladies I had seen in her widow’s cap and weeds. But it was the Queen in flesh and blood. I saw her; I heard her deep, low voice saying, ‘Tell them we are delighted with their songs, and that we wish them to sing ‘John Brown.’”
After retiring from concert tours, Porter and her husband settled in Detroit, Michigan, where she became a revered figure in the local African-American arts community, occasionally singing and helping organize concerts. The 1900 census reveal that the couple had three children: Imogene, 17, Daniel, 16, and Singleton, 14. A member of St. Matthews Episcopal Church, she also was an active participant with the Willing Workers Club, the Detroit Study Club and the In As Much Circle of King’s Daughters.
With strong memories of poor treatment below the Mason-Dixon Line and of being denied decent seats on trains and not being allowed in nicer hotel rooms, she promised herself to never set foot in the South again, a vow she kept until 1931 when she returned to her alma mater for the 60th anniversary of the Jubilees’ departure date of their first tour. She came back with the condition that a driver transport her to Nashville as she would not travel on segregated trains and buses.
J.A. Myers, director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1922, once stated that the Negro spiritual “has an appealing rhythm and melody, as well as naiveté of text, which open it to mal-usage. Many singers realize this and have taken advantage of these qualities by making them into ‘humorous’ songs, which they are not, and which is entirely against their spirit.”
In a letter Porter wrote to Fisk’s alumni secretary in 1934, she described anxieties about the current state of “old plantation songs.” She noted, “I sometimes try to listen in as some so-called Jubilee singers jig through one of our beloved melodies and leave the room with a sad heart. The situation of our parents as they tried to tell God their troubles cannot, it seems, be felt or expressed by most groups who attempt to show the world what Negro melodies are. It ends with my leaving the living room to return to my own quite, silent place where I cannot hear, to my mind, sacrilege.”
A year earlier she had told the Detroit Free Press, “Spirituals reminded us of our slave days which we wanted to forget.”
In her waning years Porter moved into the Phyllis Wheatley Home in Detroit. She had outlived both sons. Singleton died while a student at the University of Michigan. Dan Cole Jr. joined the French foreign forces in World War I and was shot and captured by the Germans but escaped and fled to Switzerland. After the war he rejoined the French air service and was sent to fight in North Africa where he was killed by the Moors and buried in Casablanca, Morocco.
The last surviving member of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, Porter died June 15, 1942, at the age of 89. She was buried at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit, survived only by her daughter, Imogene Reid.
Sources for this story include: “Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America,” by Andrew W. Ward, 2000, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; “The Jubilee Singers and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars,” by Gustavus D. Pike, 1873, Hodder and Stoughton, London and Lee and Shepard, Boston, Mass.; “The Story of the Jubilee Singers; With Their Songs,” by J.B.T. Marsh, 1885, Houghton, Mifflin and Company; “Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music: 1889-1895,” by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, 2002, University Press of Mississippi; and “British Black Gospel: The Foundations of This Vibrant UK Sound,” by Steve Alexander Smith, 2009, Monarch Books; articles: “A Long Overdue Honor for Fisk Jubilee Singers,” in March 19, 2021, “The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education”; “They Introduced the World to Slavery. It Almost Broke Them,” by Rebecca Onion in June 2019 “Topic Magazine” (online); a presentation by Andrew Ward on CSPAN2’s “BookTV” on June 14, 2000 (www.c-span.org/video/?158866-1/dark-midnight-rise); timeline from the website, pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/singers-timeline/; and stories in the Jan. 15, 1933, Detroit Free Press, and June 20, 1942, Detroit Tribune.