What happened in popular entertainment when African Americans could access the stage after the Civil War? In Spirituals and the Birth of a Black...

What happened in popular entertainment when African Americans could access the stage after the Civil War? In Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry (University of Illinois Press, 2018), Sandra Graham tells the complex story of how folk spirituals composed by enslaved people but transformed for the stage became the core repertoire for the emerging black entertainment industry after 1865. She begins by telling the familiar story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers who first popularized the concert spiritual during their successful tours of the United States and Europe in the 1870s. She expands this narrative, however, by including the crucial contributions of choirs that followed in Fisk’s footsteps especially the Hampton Institute Singers and the Tennesseans. The truly ground-breaking work in the monograph, however, is her study of commercial spirituals and the performers who popularized them in all-black minstrel shows and, at the end of the nineteenth century, in plays with music, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and black musicals such as Out of Bondage. These productions helped convince white audiences to embrace real African American entertainers, although their performances were constrained by stereotypes about black people first presented onstage in blackface minstrelsy. Graham brings her narrative to life by introducing her readers to composers, singers, and actors that were famous at the end of the nineteenth century but have since disappeared from our national consciousness. Her book’s website provides a wealth of information on jubilee choirs and their personnel, as well as excerpts from some of the early twentieth-century recordings she references in the text. The complicated interplay between black performers, the white men who generally managed and directed them, and the integrated audiences who enjoyed their work in this period solidified the racial politics that continues to shape popular entertainment today. 

Sandra Jean Graham is an Associate Professor in the Arts and Humanities Division at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Graham is also the Faculty Director of the Sorenson Center for the Arts at Babson. An ethnomusicologist by training, Graham studies African American music and blackface minstrelsy in nineteenth-century America. Her work on spirituals and minstrelsy has appeared in books and journals including the Journal for the Society of American Music and American Music. Along with Chad Runyon, she produced a website on the nineteenth-century black actor and musician Sam Lucas. In addition to her scholarly activities, Graham is currently serving as the President of the Society for American Music.


Kristen M. Turner, Ph.D. is a lecturer at North Carolina State University in the music department. Her work centers on American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century and has been published in several journals and essay collections.

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