The World’s Columbian Exposition, commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair, of 1893 served as a turning point for America in many ways. The fair brought almost 1/3 of the country to see a Chicago reborn out of the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871, a shining White City representing the beautiful, though definitely idealized, America. As the world came to see the fair, many dignitaries and VIPs also visited.
In his mid-70s, the orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of these VIPs. His visit to Chicago elicited a reception in his honor at the Quinn Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The program welcomed men and women of all races to celebrate and honor the achievements of the Hon. Mr. Douglass by presenting on topics like “Why our ministers love him,” “From a business standpoint,” “The mothers of the race,” etc. Between the presentations and speeches (many notably by African American speakers), the assembly joined in the singing of songs and hymns.
The reception’s organizers knew the power of music to connect people. Hymns especially unite the Christian faith together, reminding how similar people really are, no matter the color of their skin or their eyes, or the amount of money they have (“Amazing Grace” immediately comes to mind). One of the hymns sung at the event strikes me as especially poignant, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” by Rev. John Fawcett, the pastor at a small church in Wainsgate, England, in the 18th century:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.
We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.
From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.
I can only imagine the power of that moment, races coming together to sing a message of unity and hope, praying for the future of love and friendship to come soon and free all from toil and pain. As modern-day musicians, we must remember that the ability of music to proclaim messages calling for social change makes it the responsibility of musicians to write about, compose, and trumpet messages like this one. Sometimes we need a reminder, for as Frederick Douglass, calling for the end of lynch law, said in his final remarks, “What [Americans] needed was a higher Christianity, one that is not ashamed of any of God’s children.” We still need that higher Christianity today.
“The Douglass Reception: An Exceptional Affair in Many Respects–Something of the Programme and Certain Participants.” Cleveland Gazette. December 9, 1893. http://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:EANX&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=12DB0E0CC3A99F40&svc_dat=HistArchive:ahnpdoc&req_dat=102FE1F6CA316FA2.
Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, 2401 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/il0843.sheet.00006a/ (accessed April 7, 2015).