Ella Sheppard: Fisk’s Jubilee Singers First Black Female Instructor

Written by Jae Jones

Ella Sheppard traveled with the Jubilee Singers for eleven years as a soprano, piano accompanist, and assistant director.

As a young girl, her slave mother discovered that their mistress had trained Ella to spy on her. “In agony of soul and despair,” her mother ran to the river with her, intending to drown little Ella and herself. Soon after the incident, Ella’s father was permitted to purchase the three-year-old girl for $350 and take her to Nashville, while Ella’s mother remained a slave in Mississippi. Her father later remarried and the family moved to Ohio.

While living in Cincinnati, Ella started school and began piano and voice lessons. At the age of 15, she moved to Gallatin, Tennessee, to assist with the education of freed slaves. However, Ella realized that she did not want to teach and needed more qualifications in order to obtain other employment opportunities. She saved six dollars over the next five months and enrolled at Fisk in the fall of 1868. There she began helping George White with his choir. She was soon asked to be his assistant music teacher a year later and became Fisk’s first black female instructor.

Sheppard remained with the group for seven years. She accompanied the choir on piano, oversaw many of their rehearsals, conducted the Jubilees, and continued to collect and transcribe spirituals until the troupe’s repertoire numbered over a hundred. When an exhausted and sickly White finally resigned as director in 1878, Sheppard stood in for him for the troupe’s last months. She joined White’s subsequent troupe of Jubilees, but retired from Jubilee work when he disbanded his group in 1882.

In 1882, Ella Sheppard married George W. Moore. She spent many years helping Moore in his work with the American Missionary Association, lecturing throughout the South and organizing Jubilee choirs. Eventually, she located her mother and a sister in Mississippi and brought them to Nashville. Sheppard died in 1915.


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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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