Singer, Pianist & Teacher
When the Fisk Jubilee Singers, nine students at the predominately black Fisk University in Nashville, were formed in 1871 they began to tour to raise funds for their school. And as they did so they were a decided contrast to previous shows featuring Black performers—or what purported to be Black performers.
Minstrel shows were very popular at the time, however the singers were costumed white men who appeared in blackface, and portrayed Blacks as lazy shuffling dummies speaking in dialect. However, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were neat and serious Black students who entranced their mostly white audiences with professional arrangements of popular and classical songs. They occasionally sang what were called then “plantation songs” and what we now know as spirituals. These were numbers that were arranged, accompanied and occasionally conducted by a formerly enslaved Nashville resident named Ella Sheppard. However, Ella’s association with the Jubilee Singers was only one part of her story. She was also a gifted musician, teacher and later activist and friend, to prominent Black leaders of the 1800s.
Born in February 1851 at the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s Nashville plantation, Ella Sheppard was the daughter of Sarah and Simon Sheppard. Working as a carriage driver, Simon saved enough money to purchase his freedom but when he sought to purchase the freedom of his wife, her mistress refused. Then when Sarah discovered the woman had trained Ella to spy on her, in an “agony of soul and despair” she headed for the river with Ella, intending to drown herself. However, she never did it since (according to one story) she encountered another enslaved woman who stopped her with predictions of great accomplishments for Ella. Another version of the story claimed that Sarah was inspired to change her mind when she heard a chorus of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” And if this second story is true, then it was ironic since the Jubilee Singers would perform and popularize the spiritual which Ella arranged.
Though Simon could not free his wife, he did purchase Ella’s freedom for $350 as tragically Sarah was then literally “sold down the river” to Mississippi. Simon later remarried, purchasing his wife’s freedom. Then due to racial unrest in Nashville, as well as threats from creditors, he moved his family to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Once settled there, when Ella demonstrated musical talent, she began to study piano and also voice lessons but her prominent white teacher imposed some rules. Wanting to encourage Ella’s talent and gifts, but also conscious of the racial restrictions of the time, she asked that her student come for her lessons at night and use a rear entrance. After Simon died in 1866 Ella began to perform locally to support her stepmother and half-sister.
Then as the Civil War ended when Ella was fifteen, the Sheppard family moved to Gallatin Tennessee (north of Nashville) where she taught newly freed slaves. However, realizing she needed more education, Ella saved $6 to enroll at the Fisk School in 1868 which had been founded by the American Missionary Association after the war. Ella soon was assisting music director George L. White with the school choir, and he asked her to join the Fisk faculty as an assistant music teacher—the first black person to be so employed. Then when Ella was seventeen, and the Jubilee Singers were to start their first tour, White asked her to travel with them as their director and accompanist. The Singers consisted of nine students, four men and five women, including Miss Sheppard. They later toured Europe and performed before Queen Victoria and other monarchs.
Over the years as they appeared in churches, the Jubilee Singers performed mostly popular and classical numbers, but when they sang the spirituals their audiences enthusiastically responded! However, Miss Sheppard was very much aware of how the students and other formerly enslaved persons treasured these songs, but were also reluctant to sing them publicly. This hesitancy was as one source puts it, “due to their sacred content and their association with the dark memories of slavery.”
However, the songs were popular so Miss Sheppard began to include more and more of these numbers in the Singers’ repertoire. Also, she began to direct and manage the group when Mr. White was ill or could not tour. However, over time touring proved difficult. Usually because of how the group often encountered prejudices as to accommodations in traveling and in lodgings.
Ella married Fisk graduate George Moore in 1878, then after he received a ministerial degree, and they moved to Washington in 1883. There as he filled pastorates, and taught at Howard University, as she became an advocate and activist for temperance causes. She also became friends with the major Black figures of the period such as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass as well as Mr. and Mrs. Booker T. Washington.
In 1892 George and Ella Moore returned to Nashville, settled near Fisk University, and she resumed her connection with the music department. Later she began to do research and speaking on women’s issues and became active in social and political groups. She even funded the education of several Fisk students and supported her family, including her mother, whom she brought to live her when she was fifteen.
In 1914 Ella Moore became ill after an address in Alabama, and shortly after passed away. This was just a few days after her son graduated from Fisk University.
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References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Sheppard & https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/singers-sheppard/
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.