Black History Month

The stories of the lives of thousands of North Yorkshire people are told in the fascinating archives held by the Record Office.  Over five miles of documents, dating from the 12th century onwards, reveal the lives of the countless individuals from the highest born to the humblest, but some stories are still hidden & await discovery.

During Black History Month, we are highlighting some of those stories of black people living in and passing through North Yorkshire. We want our archive collections to represent all aspects of the history of North Yorkshire and its communities. If you have documents, photos, diaries or a story to share uncovering the history of black people in North Yorkshire, please get in touch and help us to tell all our stories.

Fisk Jubilee Singers

A recently discovered handbill offers a glimpse into the cultural life of Bedale in the early 20th century.  In 1912, the Bedale Literary and Debating Society played host to the Famous Trio of Fisk Jubilee Singers: Miss Euna M Mocara (Soprano) Miss Laura A Carr (Contralto) Mr Eugene M McAdoo (Bass) at the Assembly Rooms, Bedale.  The Singers were an African-American a capella ensemble consisting of students from Fisk University, which had been founded in 1866, shortly after the end of the American Civil War.

The following entry in the minutes of the Bedale Literary & Debating Society refers to their concert:

Assembly Rooms, Bedale, March 22/12

This evening the Fisk Jubilee Singers gave a Concert under the auspices of this society in the above rooms. This was the second visit of the Trio & a very large & appreciative audience gave them an excellent reception.

ZDQ F/4 Entry in the minute book of the Bedale Literary & Debating Society entry, 22nd March 1912

The first visit of the Trio was on 28th October 1910:

Assembly Rooms, Bedale 28 Oct 1910

This evening the Trio of Fisk Jubilee Singers gave a Concert under the auspices of this society in the above rooms. The Trio consisted of Miss Eura Mocana (Soprano) Miss Laura Carr (Contralto) & Mr Eugene McAdoo (Bass). The Revd. Father Lewis presided, and introduced the Trio to a good audience on their first visit to Bedale. The Concert consisted of Choruses, Trios, & Songs by the ladies, also Duets. Every item was well received, & splendidly rendered. The programme, which was an excellent one, was only slightly departed from. The audience seemed delighted with the Concert.

ZDQ F/4 Entry in the minute book of the Bedale Literary & Debating Society entry, 28th October 1910

Thomas Rutling

An earlier member of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers was Thomas Rutling, who was born into slavery in Wilson County, Tennessee, USA in 1854. In 1865, aged 11 he was freed and he joined his siblings in Nashville before enrolling at the high school at Fisk University, set-up six months after the end of the Civil War.

Thomas Rutling joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers as a tenor and toured extensively with the group in the US, UK and Europe on their three tours between 1871 and 1878, raising money for Fisk University and the building of the Jubilee Hall. After a time the group found success and performed for an appreciative Queen Victoria. Following the stresses of touring, the group disbanded in 1878 and Rutling spent time in Europe performing and touring before returning to England, eventually settling in Harrogate. In October 1904 the Norfolk Chronicle reported that the Harrogate Borough Prize Band visited Hunstanton, giving a concert in the Town-hall accompanied by Mr Thomas Rutling, an African vocalist (tenor). He worked as a voice teacher and later went back to touring, where he was known as ‘The African Tenor’. His death on 26th April 1915 was reported as far away as Bournemouth and he was buried in Grove Road Cemetery.

An advert for his services appeared in the Wharfdale & Airedale Observer in October 1892:

MR. THOMAS RUTLING,

THE AFRICAN TENOR,

Begs to announce to the Inhabitants of Ilkley that

he gives LESSONS in VOICE PRODUCTION

and SINGING. Kindly address all applications for

Lessons and Terms to Mr. Rutling, care of Messrs.

Wood and Marshall, Music Warehouse, Parliament

Street, Harrogate.

The Harrogate Civic Society installed a plaque (Plq73) in 2014 at 97 Valley Drive, Harrogate where Thomas Rutling was living when he died. His story was told in a play called Sweet Chariot: Thomas Rutling and the Road to Freedom as part of the Harrogate International Festival in 2015.


Further Reading

The Fisk Jubilee Singers still perform today and their website includes a section on the history of the group

There is an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for Thomas Rutling

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