The Significance of Negro Spirituals

Slavery has had roots in this country almost as long as the country itself. Prior to 1865, the majority of Africans who were brought to this country were as slaves. These people were forced to labor under harsh conditions without any freedoms or graces. It was during this time where workers were allowed to sing songs and attend church, either with the gospel given by a white male, or while being supervised by a white mediator. Both in the congregation and in the fields, workers would sing songs that became known as “Negro Spirituals” to express personal feelings, and to cheer for one another.

This picture above is from the Library of Congress’ Alex Loman Collection. This picture is from a congregation at an all Black Baptist church on the Alma Plantation in False River, Louisiana 1934. This shows a small congregation that would sing these songs together to praise the lord and look for a brighter future. As well, these songs would help to give strength to those were tired and weak.

Music was such a vital part of survival for these people. Many of these black people would use and create instruments for their worship and singing times. The picture below is an example of a few instruments that were created between 1934-1950. These instruments were mostly horn-like instruments designed to use in singing and creating music together.

In 1865, Slavery was abolished. It was after this time that some African Americans were allowed to go to school to become educated. One such establishment – Fisk University, was one of the first universities for African Americans in Nashville Tennessee. It was here that the “Fisk Jubilee Singers” were founded. This group was organized in 1871 with the intention of sharing African American spirituals with the world on several tours. This group recognizes the significance of singing and performing these songs, not for fame or recognition, but rather to use their music as a lens to glimpse at what the life for these slaves could have been like and how their music affected them and their lives. The mistreatment of these people were horrid, and their music reminds us of their struggles and the raw emotion that was poured into this singing.



Lomax, Alan, photographer. Baptist congregation, Alma Plantation, False River, La. False River Louisiana United States, 1934. July. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed October 02, 2017.)

[Folk Musical Instruments Including Homemade Horns]. , None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed October 02, 2017.)

American Missionary Association, Black, James Wallace, photographer. Jubilee singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn. / negative by Black. Nashville Tennessee, 1872. [Place not identified: Publisher not identified, ?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed October 02, 2017.)

Fisk University Jubilee Quartet — Vocal group, Noah Walker Ryder — Bass Vocal, Alfred Garfield King — Bass Vocal, John Wesley Work II — Tenor Vocal, and J. A. Myers — Tenor Vocal. “Swing low, sweet chariot.” Browse All Recordings | Swing low, sweet chariot, Take 3 (1909-12-01) | National Jukebox December 01, 1909. Accessed October 03, 2017.

One thought on “The Significance of Negro Spirituals

  1. Nice job on this! You’ve found some fascinating primary source images and you offer great insights about their significance. For your next post, experiment with finding a primary source and going deep down the rabbit hole it came out of. That is, take just the first picture – Black churchgoers – and try to figure out what they would have sung in the 1930s. Did Lomax record any sacred music (spirituals and the like) during his song-collecting trips? Did he publish any of it in one of his collections of tunes? (The answers are yes, and yes.) You should feel free to focus on just one tiny topic and see how much you can squeeze out of it, rather than touching briefly on three slightly different topics and treating each in a short paragraph. Good luck, and keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply