Springfield hotels turn away Black singing group, 1881

A Jubilee Singers brochure, 1897-98; Frederick Loudin, center, was the group’s musical director and co-manager during its 1881 visit to Springfield (Fisk University)

Springfield hotels refused to house America’s best-known Black choral group in 1881. The result was nationwide condemnation, a rebuke from President James A. Garfield, and a scramble by embarrassed local residents to repair the city’s reputation.

The group was the Jubilee Singers, founded in the 1870s to raise money for Fisk University, an African-American college in Nashville, Tenn. The original Jubilee Singers, who are credited with popularizing the Black spiritual tradition, toured extensively in the U.S. and Europe; their audiences included President U.S. Grant and Queen Victoria.

The group that came to Springfield in 1881 was an independent descendant of the first Jubilees; though not associated with the school at the time (the Jubilee Singers and Fisk would reconnect later), they still performed as “the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University.” They were scheduled to perform at the Chatterton Opera House on May 4 and 5.

Springfield had three first-class hotels in 1881: the Leland at Fifth Street and Capitol Avenue; the St. Nicholas, Fourth and Jefferson streets; and the Revere House, Fourth and Washington streets.

Edward S. Johnson, undated (findagrave.com)

The Jubilee Singers had stayed at the Revere House, apparently with no problem or controversy, when the group performed in Springfield a year earlier. The Revere’s manager, Maj. Edward S. Johnson, said he would have accommodated the singers again in 1881 if he had rooms available. The Revere had been fully booked by legislators and performers from a traveling circus, Johnson said.

But Johnson hedged when the Jubilees’ business agent, Henry Cushing, asked if the group could eat at the Revere if the singers found beds elsewhere. “Then they showed their animus immediately,” Cushing told the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper. “They said if we would come after hours, eating at the second table or later, we might possibly find seats.”

Cushing didn’t even approach the St. Nicholas – hotel owner John McCreery had denied accommodations to the Jubilees the year before. (McCreery, coincidentally, was elected Springfield mayor less than a month before the Jubilee Singers came to town. His  opponent, Thomas Mather, made a campaign issue out of McCreery’s earlier treatment of the singing group, but McCreery won with about 60 percent of the vote.)

Meanwhile, Horace Leland, the Leland Hotel’s manager and namesake, was forthright about his racism. He was quoted in a Chicago Tribune story (expurgations by SangamonLink).

“My house is filled with white guests, and I don’t want any n—– boarders,” Leland reportedly told the Tribune. “… I run a hotel to make a living, and can’t afford to scare away my guests by bringing in a pack of n——. They’re all well enough in their place, but God damn me if I want to eat with them, or sleep with them, or have any of my relatives marry ‘em, by God, sir.”

The fact that hotels in Springfield, home of Abraham Lincoln, wouldn’t accommodate African-Americans made news across the U.S. Dozens of newspapers pointed out the irony.

Illinois State Journal advertisement for the Jubilee Singers’ engagement, 1881 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Springfield newspapers covered the controversy, but carefully. They didn’t publish Leland’s racist comments, for instance, and the only story that identified any of the recalcitrant hotels was an Illinois State Register article that printed Johnson’s claim that the Revere was too full to accommodate the Black singers.

An Illinois State Journal editorial on April 29 typified the local coverage.

It is fair to the proprietors to say that some of them have, in many ways, proven their friendliness to the colored people, and that their refusal was on business principles and purely in deferance (sic) to popular prejudice. In this the Journal expresses the opinion that they make a mistake – that the prejudice is not so deeply seated and widely prevalent as they suppose, and that unreasoning people who object to hotels’ entertaining such persons as the Jubilee Singers are unworthy of respectful consideration. Indeed, it is of the opinion that they should have taken especial pains to entertain them, to avoid the appearance or suspicion that they were disposed to discriminate against them.

When the story reached Washington, D.C., President Garfield “expressed great indignation,” the New York Herald Tribune reported. “(W)hen they come to Washington,” Garfield said, “if the hotels are closed against them, they will find the White House ready to receive them with a hearty welcome.”

Something similar eventually happened in Springfield. “A sufficient number of our citizens have opened their homes for the entertainment of the Jubilee Singers to insure ample accomodations for all,” the Journal reported May 2, and the shows went on as scheduled.

John M. Palmer, undated (Wikipedia)

The newspapers didn’t identify the volunteer hosts, but one of them almost surely was former Gov. John M. Palmer, who remained a Springfield resident after his gubernatorial term ended in 1873. Palmer, a Union major general during the Civil War, was a longstanding advocate for Black civil rights. As military governor of Kentucky, Palmer was credited with ending slavery in that state, and as a Springfield school board member in 1873, he led the effort to close the city’s “colored school” and integrate African-Americans into the formerly all-white ward schools.

At any rate, it was Palmer who was chosen to speak on behalf of Springfield well-wishers when the Jubilee Singers gave their first Opera House performance on May 4.

The residents he represented, Palmer said, “desire to assist you in meeting and overcoming the prejudices that you so often encounter, and of which our own city, we fear, sometimes offers examples. They desire me to say to you that even now they can see that prejudice against your race is fading away. That within a few years, in this city where Lincoln lived, and which is honored by the possession of his remains, public opinion will soon be so improved and so elevated that the traveler will be allowed to take ‘mine ease in mine inn’ without regard to race, color or previous condition of servitude. …

“Ladies and gentlemen – Jubilee Singers – you are welcome. May your visit be pleasant and profitable, and may you be encouraged to come again.”

The Jubilees’ musical director and manager, Frederick J. Loudin, responded:

The hospitable manner in which some of your best citizens have opened their homes to receive us and the words of welcome just spoken … assure me that there are many hearts here that beat warm with sympathy for us and the cause we represent.

Palmer, of course, was too optimistic about race relations in Springfield. Aside from the 1908 race riot, major local hotels were still denying rooms to Black people, even legislators, 60 years later.

Artistically, the Singers were a success. “They are accomplished musicians,” the Journal said in an opening-night review. “There was no attempt at affectation. The songs and glees were all plain and simple – negro slave songs – and the company sang them in a plain and simple manner that charmed the audience and occasioned the heartiest aplause.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers returned to Springfield in 1892 and 1897 and then periodically over the next 40 or 50 years. If there were any further problems with their accommodations, they went unreported in local newspapers.

Footnotes and followups

  • The Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to perform worldwide today.
  • John M. Palmer was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1891. He ran for President in 1896 as a “Gold Democrat” (opposed to the free-silver platform of the regular Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan), but received only about 1 percent of the vote. He died in Springfield in 1900 and is buried in Carlinville.
  • John McCreery of the St. Nicholas Hotel won a second term as mayor in 1883.
  • Revere Hotel manager Maj. Edward S. Johnson served as custodian of Lincoln’s Tomb from 1895 to 1921.

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This entry was posted in Abolitionism, African Americans, Amusements, Arts and letters, Hotels & taverns, Presidential candidates, Prominent figures, Social life. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Springfield hotels turn away Black singing group, 1881

  1. Tom Massey says:

    My grandparents, my mother, and her siblings lived in the 400 block of Williams, certainly not the Boulevard, in the 1920’s and much later. “Granny” lived there until approx. 1980.
    On the SE corner of Williams and Pasfield (and the property next door) apparently were two black families. I say apparently because my grandmother and mother talked about noted black entertainers and other travelers who were welcomed there.
    I did check the Springfield addresses that appeared in The Green Book and, although those particular addresses were not listed, several homes nearby were, including at least one on West Chenery.

  2. Nick Penning says:

    Wow. What a great story about such a sad and disgraceful affair in our hometown. Thanks, Mike, for your excellent research and writing. As a society, we still have so far to go.

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