Updated: Sep 21
For my family, Piper, Abbey, Jesse, Emma, Jenn, Julia
We have an ancestor who was directly responsible for the shape and sound of the music that brightens our mornings and lightens our nights.
She did this by ensuring that the songs American slaves created in the tobacco and cotton plantations were not forgotten when slavery was outlawed.
These songs came to be called gospels. That is, music born of gospel stories sung by forced laborers to provide rhythm for their backbreaking work.
And to help keep them hopeful for everlasting happiness, or at least relief from toil and pain.
Our ancestor was the daughter of a Christian missionary and educator named Milo Cravath. Milo grew up playing host to runaway slaves at his parents’ house in New York State.
Before the Civil War freed the slaves, their house was a station on the Underground Railway. Not a real railway, of course. This one took the escaped slaves from safe house to safe house, usually by night, across the Southern States to freedom in the Northern States and Eastern Canada. The journey could be thousands of miles.
The savage Civil War (more people killed than in any other U.S. war) lasted from 1861 to 1865. Milo Cravath was an army chaplain for the northern forces in battles in Tennessee and Ohio.
Following the war, with slavery outlawed, Milo and two other men established Fisk University, the country’s first university for black people.
Milo purchased land in Nashville, Tennessee and a building was built. He was its initial president and remained president for twenty years.
But back to Milo’s daughter. (I wish I knew her name) Listening to the first Fisk students sing their work songs, she thought to start a choir. She named the choir the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It was made up exclusively of former slaves, some still in their teens.
Milo’s daughter was a go-getter. She toured the choir ambitiously. Skeptical white audiences who attended performances for their novelty value were quickly won over.
The choir was a great success. It toured Europe. Everywhere they went the singers were celebrated for the rhythmic power, vocalizations and profound emotion of their field songs and hollers, and as representatives of the first black university.
Her Fisk choir established gospel music as an American art form. Today it can be heard enlivening congregations, those primarily black and those primarily white.
So, in the cotton and tobacco fields gospel was born. Out of gospel came the blues. Out of the blues evolved jazz, soul, rock and pop. Mixed with traditional British folk ballads brought by settlers to the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas, gospel also developed into country.
Our ancestors played an influential role in the development of America’s music. As educators, they played roles in the struggle for human rights throughout the United States.
Milo Cravath and his daughter were antecedents of Margaret Cravath, your great and great-great grandmother. Their conduct and attitudes influenced Margaret to study to be a teacher. In 1900 she became the first woman to graduate from the University of North Dakota.
I knew her well. She would have been extremely proud of you.
Fisk University still exists. The latest incarnation of the Jubilee Singers still tours the world. To hear them and to learn more about Milo Cravath, search Wikipedia or Google Fisk University’s history.
And as you listen to your music, whatever style fits you, give a thought now and then to our family’s gift to it.
Addendum: Now I know her name. It was Bessie (Elizabeth). The information in this blog post comes mainly from family documents.