Claflin University Jubilee Singers, 1897–1912

At the turn of the century, Claflin (Orangeburg, SC) was one of the largest schools for blacks in the South, with eight hundred students and forty teachers. It adhered to the industrial model of education, as did Hampton University. The school was founded by the Claflin family of Boston: Lee Claflin and his son William, then governor of Massachusetts. Its financial support came chiefly from the Freedmen's Aid Society of the Methodist Church, the John F. Slater Fund, and the Southern Education Society (Rochester [NY] Democrat and Chronicle, 21 June 1911: 17). The school graduated its first college class in 1879.
      According to numerous newspaper accounts, the Claflin University Jubilee Singers formed around 1897, although the earliest newspaper account I have found dates from 1900. They traveled with Claflin president Dr. Lewis M. Dunton (whose name is often orthographically abused in newspaper articles). An adept fundraiser, Dunton spoke about the work of the school at each concert. The fundraising goal was one hundred thousand dollars by the end of 1912. By June 1911 they had raised a little over six hundred dollars and expected to add a thousand dollars in the next few days (Rochester [NY] Democrat and Chronicle, 21 June 1911: 17).
      The group, which began as a male quintet, toured only in summer, singing primarily in Methodist churches. Admission to their entertainments was free, with a voluntary collection (known as a "silver offering").
      An article in the Fort Wayne [IN] News (30 June 1902: 5) gave a sense of the troupe's style:

There are singers who can sing just as sweetly and probably with more evidences of cultivation, but there are none whose singing has a greater charm to an audience than these colored jubilee singers. There is something about their songs that lightens the heart and pleases the ear that the songs sung by even famous singers of culture do not possess. Their plantation melodies are simply grand and everyone who heard the quintet of singers last evening were warm in their praise. They began their program of song with "If I Were a Boy" [probably the Hutchinson song "If I Were a Voice"], following it with [the spirituals] "Give Me That Old Religion," "The Gospel Train is Coming," and other pieces in which the melody of their music united with their distinctly spoken words made the evening one of rare pleasure and profit.

The same article names the singers as W. H. Marshall and John Brown, first tenors; J. C. Dickerson, second tenor; Henry C. Hardy, first bass; and Edgar Miller, second bass. A fifteen- year-old named Exodus Drayton gave dialect selections.
      In 1908 the singers were a quartet: V. N. Marshall, first tenor; William Wallace, second tenor; C. E. Drayton, baritone; and Francis Thomas, bass; directed by Professor I. E. Wallace (Star-Gazette [Elmira, NY], 2 July 1908: 16).
      In 1911 they added a female soprano (Harrisburg [PA] Daily Independent, 15 May 1911: 2), although I found only one reference to a woman singer.
      Reviews were positive: "The singers do not claim to be of the professional class, but their singing is of a high order and superior to many of the so-called professional concert singers" (Star-Gazette [Elmira, NY], 12 June 1911: 4). A commentary on their visit to Sea Cliff (Long Island, NY) in 1910 attests to their vocal excellence: "Visits from jubilee singers are by no means rare, but these performers were very far above average" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 July 1910: 5).
      As for their repertory, the songs most commented on were plantation songs (Richard Henry Buck and Adam Geibel's "Kentucky Babe" and Dan Emmett's "Dixie") and the patriotic "The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground," which elicited demonstrable enthusiasm every time they performed it (see, e.g., Asbury Park [NJ] Press, 11 July 1912: 6).
     The Claflin singers sang coast to coast, going as far north as North Dakota and Minnesota.