In August of 1938, the Tuskegee Institute’s male quintet sang at Silver Bay, presenting a program of spirituals in the Helen Hughes Memorial Chapel. Members of the quintet were Otis D. Wright, Charles R. Fox, William M. Brown, Richard A. Montgomery and William A. Wiley. The program included songs such as “Go Down, Moses,” “I Want to Be Like Jesus,” “Steal Away,” “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” delivered in a style described as reverent, intricate and polished.
In 1939, the quintet sang for President Roosevelt, appeared at the New York World’s Fair, and in August, they sang again at Silver Bay. The Ticonderoga Sentinel noted, “Last summer these singers appeared at Silver Bay and were warmly greeted by a large and appreciative audience.”
Such appreciation was not always the case for these young men. The Institute’s first male choir was sent out in 1884, to raise money for the school and build bridges to white America. Around 1900, in a letter to Booker T. Washington, the school’s founder, a singer wrote, “We are told to our faces often that though our quartet is one of the best heard up here, they would like us better if we would ‘play the Nigger’ – their own words… every day we are made to understand that if there was less refinement about us and more fool, we would do better.”
The writer, Isaac Fisher, added that “coon” acts made as much as $40 for a performance compared to the $12 the Tuskegee Quartet was making. But the quartet would not lower itself. When audiences asked the young men to dance and sing songs about Negroes stealing chickens, Fisher said, “I make no pretensions to try to please.”
From 1914 to ’16, and again from 1926 to ’27, the Tuskegee singers were recorded on the Victor label. Many of these recordings are available on iTunes, and also online at the National Jukebox of the Library of Congress, so we can hear today an echo of the Tuskegee singers’ performance at Silver Bay.