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  • Writer's pictureTyeal Howell

The Local Legacy of The "Queen of Colored Sopranos" Jennie Gatewood

Jennie Gatewood was hailed as the "Queen of colored sopranos," during the height of her musical career. She was born in Virginia and moved to Carlise, Pennsylvania as a child with her family. By 1878, she had graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music and joined the New Orleans University Singers. That group was inspired by the famed Jubilee Singers of Fisk University from Tennessee.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were founded at the historically black college in Nashville. The original Fisk group traveled the nation and world singing spirituals and songs passed down through slaves in the South and their descendants. Many of those individuals found their way to Fisk University which was established by missionaries for freed African Americans in the wake of the Civil War. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were deployed as a fundraising group for the college when the institution was facing closure. Their performances raised critical funds for the school and drew critical acclaim nationwide and around the world. The original Fisk singers even performed for Queen Victoria. However, the inaugural Fisk Singers disbanded after a grueling travel schedule and after encountering racism while touring. A modern version of the Fisk University Singers continues today as a traveling ensemble that pays tribute to the group's historic roots.

Early members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers such as B.W. Thomas would go on to form another group known as Fisk University Singers Group Number 2. The Thomas-formed ensemble included Jennie Gatewood and John Chavers. with John being a bass singer and native of Urbana, Ohio.

Jennie's performances particularly drew praise from critics across North America, and she often hyphenated her name after marrying John in Urbana in 1886. The city would become the couple's home base when not traveling and would perform locally. Among some of the solos in which Jennie sang included: "Jesus, Lover of My Soul", "The Cows Are in the Corn", and "Roll on Rocky Deep" In later years, the couple joined Donovin's Old Tennesseans Slave Cabin singing group that was a similar genre to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and traveled North America.

By the early 20th century, the couple was slowing in their performances. John had become a popular city councilman in Urbana and the Chavers settled into their home on South Main Street. John Chavers would be appointed as a guard at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus and would become the prison's choir director. He drew praise from across the state for his instruction to the incarcerated. Jennie was by John's side with their musical instruction to the inmates.

When John's appointment to the penitentiary came to an end, he went to work at the local brick yard near their home as he was originally trained as a brickmaker. Within the first days on the job, John died of heat stroke in 1909. Jennie turned to a career as a hairdresser following her husband's death. Jennie moved from Urbana to Champaign, Illinois briefly and married again, but she eventually returned to Urbana, Ohio after she and her second husband separated. She would die of a heart attack at her final residence on the corner of Hill and Buckeye Streets in 1924.

You can hear a rendition of the hymn Jennie Gatewood Chavers would have sang, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" here below.

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