The sermon preached by The Rev. Tim Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, 23rd Sunday of Pentecost, October 27, 2002, dedicated to the 2003 Fisk Jubilee Singers, Mr. Paul Kwami, director and Ms. Trudy Moore, Chaperone of Fisk University and Dr. Nancy Dye, President of Oberlin College and always to the glory of God!
Leviticus 25:8-17 and I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Psalm 137 begins its lament with these words, "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our lyres. For there our captures required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth saying, `Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' But, how shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?'
From the Psalmist, our questions are formed: How do you sing a new song unto the Lord in captivity? How do you glorify God with the greatest gift a person can give - the gift of voice and soul - when you are enslaved, persecuted, rocked to the core of your humanity and the essence of your being?
We need not travel 2500 years the shores of the Euphrates River and to the captivity of Zion in Babylon, but only 150 years to the slavery of black men, women and children in America and just 120 miles to the Kentucky and West Virginian river banks of the Ohio River which served as the crossing points from slavery to freedom to find our answers. In fact, for those of us who are here today or were here last night, we need only open our ears to hear the songs of Zion once more. Years before the world would hear this song, Henrietta Matson records her hearing a cook named Queen Victoria ("not her royal highness but her namesake") singing: "Remember Daniel. . . in the Lion's den, Dear Hebrew children too, cast in the burning fiery furnace. Thou didst deliver them. O! Lord, deliver me. Thou didst deliver them, Why not deliver me?" Henrietta declared upon hearing this, "There is argument and pleading such as only goes up from hearts shut up to God for help!"
Andrew Ward writes in his book, Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers:
Such songs were a revelation. Missionaries struggled to find a name that would adequately describe their mysterious power. Before they came to be called "Negro spirituals," or "songs of Jubilee" they were known as "plantation melodies," "slave hymns," "cabin songs," "plantations songs," and "Sorrow Songs." It was difficult sometimes for Northern missionaries to persuade freedmen to sing them for them. As Ella Sheppard wrote, "The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past and represented the things to be forgotten. Then too, they were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship and shouted over them." (Ward, Dark Midnight, Amistad Press, 2001, pp. 109-110).
In the summer of 1871, just months before the Singers were to set off on their first tour north - a tour that brought them through Columbus, where they were named in late October (perhaps this date!), Adam Knight Spence, Fisk's president wrote, "One day there came into my room a few students with some air of mystery. The doors were shut and locked, the window curtains were drawn, and as if a thing they were ashamed of, they sang some of the old time religious slave songs now long since known as Jubilee songs." Ella Sheppard, recalled, "sitting upon the floor (for there were few chairs) and practicing softly, learning from each other the songs of our fathers. We did not dream of ever using them in public" (Ibid).
But, Ella Sheppard did not keep these songs of Zion sung from the souls of forebearers stretching back over a century to herself. She brought to the ensemble, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Before I'd Be a Slave" - songs her enslaved mother, Sarah, had taught her and later claimed to have composed. Matson brought "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" Jennie Jackson brought "I'll hear the Trumpet Sound," a song she had learned from a very elderly slave. Ella Sheppard transcribed a host of other slave hymns on sheet after sheet of music paper, so that by 1881 well over 100 hymns were in the collection.
As spirituals fell into two broad categories, "Sorrow Songs," like "Go Down Moses," and "Jubilee Songs" like "This Little Light Of Mine,"so did the life of one Samuella Sheppard rise up from sorrow and jubilee. The matriarch of the Jubilees was a frail, tenacious former slave named Samuella Sheppard. She was quintessentially American. More American in her rootedness than most I know or have known, Ella's ancestors were Native American Indian, African and white. Her maternal great-grandmother Rosa, was the free, full-blooded daughter of a Cherokee chief. But in order to remain with her enslaved African husband, himself the son of an African chief, she lived as a slave of the Donelsons, one of the founding families of Nashville and in-laws of General Andrew Jackson. Whenever the Donelsons gave her trouble, Rosa would return to her tribe threatening vengeance on anyone who might try to harm or mistreat her enslaved children in her absence. No one messed with Rosa. Rosa had 14 children and lived to the age of 109. Among her daughters was Ella's grandmother, Rebecca who married a fellow Donelson slave and gave birth to 12 children, including Ella's mother Sarah Hannah Sheppard. Though marriages between slaves were not legally binding, Sarah was married in about 1844 to Harper Sheppard's slave half brother, Simon who worked for the family as a coachman. Ella was born to Sarah and Simon in February 1851. She was a frail, skinny little baby whose physical constitution would never be strong but whose spiritual constitution was iron mixed with steel!
When Ella was about three years old, Sarah discovered that her mistress had trained the child to spy on her and other slaves. This was common enough in slaveholder's households. With buttered biscuits and sweet cakes, owners bribed black children to inform on parents suspected of shirking, sabotage, plotting escapes or insurrections; there were even stories of slave owners posting parrots in their fields and cookhouses to act - or so slaves were told - as spies.
Telling the story as an adult, Ella records,
I had made my first report which the mistress magnified and threatened my mother. Stung by this revelation and realizing that it would lead eventually to the alienation of our affection and teach me to lie and deceive, in agony of soul and despair she caught me in her arms, and while rushing to the river to end it all , was overtaken by Mammy Viney, who cried out, "Don't you do it Honey. Don't you take that that you cannot give back! Then she looked to Heaven and said, "Look Honey, don't you see the clouds of the Lord as they pass by? The Lord has got need of this child."
In yet another version, the old slave's name was Aunt Cherry, and her prophecy was even more explicit: "God got great work for this baby to do...She's going to stand before kings and queens!" No matter how Ella's oral tradition and memory adapted the story, her mother Sarah, who lived a long life after she was freed from slavery would tell years later, "I hugged my helpless baby to my breast and walked back into slavery to await God's own time." (Ibid, p.5).
Simon, Ella's father, was eventually able to buy his freedom and began saving money for his wife Sarah. Sarah convinced him, for a lesser price to buy Ella's freedom, just before Sarah was sold south to Mississippi from Nashville. Ella grew up mostly in Cincinnati before returning to Nashville in 1865 following the war and her mother's return from Mississippi to reunite with her mother. At only 14 years old, taking her literacy and her commitment to teach to others, Ella set off for Gallatin, Tennessee to be a teacher in two schools. The local whites burned both schools to the ground, so Ella crowded all the children into a makeshift school and began again to teach. It was not the burnings and violence that eventually drove Ella back to Nashville, but the fact that she couldn't earn enough to feed herself and keep herself clothed. It was upon her return to Nashville that she found her way to Fisk. Although sick much of the time in her first years, she taught music to students and there caught the eye of George White, whose vision it was to form an ensemble of singers to raise money for Fisk's survival through a concert or perhaps two concerts!
Ella Shepphard went on to become the backbone of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. In 1913, she appeared at the close of a Jubilee concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium to sing again, in her small, true voice, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." On June 3, 1914, she gave the commencement address at Mary Well's Trinity School in Athens, Alabama. On her way home, she had appendicitis, and few days later, this skinny, frail, and infinitely courageous woman who had survived a childhood of slavery, grief, deprivation and eleven years of grueling tours across of America, Canada, Britain, and Europe died of sepsis on the operating table at age of 63, "Still hopeful," as she once wrote in an account of her life, "of the ultimate triumph of righteousness and the redemption of her people."
I have paused this day from the elucidation of biblical texts and traditional preaching to reflect on the legacy of Jubilee - primarily through the story of one woman - Ella Shepphard! But, the Jubilee legacy reaches back through hundreds of years of slavery and the power and purpose of African-Americans. It reaches back to the Hebrew people - by the waters of Babylon - and under the Pharaoh's wicked rule. It reaches back to Leviticus and the year proclaimed for the liberation of all people! The Hebrew word "yovel" or "Jubilee" takes its name from the shophar - the trumpet made from the ram's horn - which is blown each year to proclaim the Day of Atonement. Jubilee is forever a musical calling us to be at one with God!
Our At-one-ment with God is tied up and closely related to the Jubilee! We find our liberation in God's freedom. God frees us to be justice-makers and peacemakers and music-makers! God frees us to abolish the hatred of racial divides and class divides and religious divides! God frees us to be drum majors as (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) said, in the triumphant band of reconcilation and joy! Until all God's children are free, until all God's children are fairly treated, until all God's children have been embraced and liberated by the Jubilee - let us say and sing together:
O FREEDOM, O FREEDOM, O FREEDOM OVER ME!
AND BEFORE I BE A SLAVE, I BE BURIED IN MY GRAVE
AND GO HOME TO MY LORD AND BE FREE!
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