Fisk University's Ties to South Asia, 1887-1890

"Untitled - Portrait of Henrietta Matson"

Henrietta Matson Ca. 1888.

In early January, 1890, the former Fisk University English professor and Christian Missionary in South Asia, Henrietta Matson, excitedly wrote to her friend Adam Spence that “the Jubilees are coming to Rangoon on their way to China.”[1] The past November and December, she attended many of the Singers’ concerts in Calcutta.[2] According to Matson, socializing with the FJS and attending their performances “was a bit of home to me. Loudin alluded to me twice in his public speeches. The marvel that he should meet a teacher for Fisk half way around the world.”[3] Matson departed from Fisk University in 1887. However, during her years as a Christian Missionary in South Asia she retained connections to Fisk through frequent correspondence with the Spence family, the publication of accounts of her missionary endeavors in The Fisk Herald, and her encouragement of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to tour India and Burma. In addition to briefly outlining how Matson envisioned her missionary activities as an extension of her time as an educator at Fisk, this page illuminates the importance of her manuscripts in providing information on the Jubilee Singers’ travels in Indian and Burma from 1889 to 1890. South Asian newspaper articles provide details of concert venues, Loudin’s speeches, and the particular songs performed.[4] Yet, Matson’s letters are one of the only sources known to scholars which reveal both audience reaction as well as the various social invitations that the Singers received in Calcutta and Rangoon.[5] Given her important first-hand accounts of the Singers’ concerts as well as her role in arranging their performances and social interactions with prominent missionaries, her activities in South Asia are a noteworthy part of the history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ global travels.

After seventeen years of teaching English at Fisk University, tensions with President Cravath led Henrietta Matson to resign and become a proselytizer in India in 1887.[6] Shortly before leaving for the subcontinent, Matson wrote to her former Fisk colleagues that “I shall consider myself still a member of your missionary society – an active member having only transferred my field of labor from Fisk University to distant India. In some respects, my work will be not unlike the work there.”[7] From December, 1887 to September, 1889 Matson and a handful of British missionaries established and maintained the Akola Girls’ School in Berar, India.[8] In addition to providing elementary school education, Matson and her colleagues promoted Christianity amongst their students.[9] During her time in Akola, Matson lightheartedly referred to these children as her “Fisk students” in India.[10] Matson endeavored to learn about India’s past and present and to speak Indian languages, but she was seemingly unable to entirely comprehend colonial Indian society.[11] Matson condemned the racism of Britons in India as “worse than [that of] the most rabid Americans.”[12] Yet, she was unable to eschew many of her own biases and assumptions. For instance, in April, 1889, Matson wrote to Mary Spence about “our postmaster in Akola – Mr. Moncrieff…He might be called a ‘colored Scotchman,’ his European blood is Scotch, and he looks and acts just like a Scotchman – but he is almost black. His wife’s European blood is Portuguese.” According to Matson, Moncrieff’s oldest daughter, Martha, “was greatly annoyed one day because I spoke of [them as] ‘colored people.’” Martha responded to her by asking “why are we black?” After the missionary replied, Martha claimed that Matson’s ideas of race were not in accordance with “our idea of things.”[13]

During her time in India, Matson remained in contact with Fisk University by sending letters directly to the editors of Fisk’s student newspaper. In April 1888 and January 1890, The Fisk Herald published her accounts of India and her missionary activities.[14] Matson was able to “reach many of [her] dear Fisk friends through the Herald, to whom [she] cannot write personally,”[15] but she also frequently wrote to the Spence family and sent photographs to them. After taking a tour of northern India with her missionary colleagues in 1888, Matson sent Mary Spence a set of commercially-produced photographs depicting famous Indian monumental architecture, such as the Taj Mahal and Emperor Akbar’s tomb. Mary Spence responded that she has “always been interested in the Taj Mahal and the emperor who built it for his queen. I shall think ever so much of the picture.”[16]

Matson’s departure from the Akola Girls School provided her with an opportunity to socialize with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and attend their concerts in Calcutta and Burma. In September 1889, Matson lamented to the Spences that her “life in Akola is practically finished.” She pondered to herself why she “settled upon Akola to start a school, the most unhealthful place I could have found.”[17] The following month, the famous American missionary, Bishop Thoburn requested that Matson temporarily relocate to Calcutta and then a few months later “open up a ‘Deaconesses House’ in Rangoon.”[18] These circumstances allowed Matson to be in Calcutta and Rangoon when the Singers performed in these cities. But she also was instrumental in arranging their concerts at Bishop Thoburn’s churches.[19]

Moreover, Matson’s correspondence provides scholars with rich detail as to the Jubilee Singers’ performances in South Asia. After attending the FJS’s first concert in Calcutta in November, 1889, Matson wrote to Elizabeth Spence that their songs “were truly beautiful – their voices blending as they used. But in some of the new pieces there was a little bit of the grotesque thrown in,” which produced a very intriguing aesthetic. Loudin “made a neat little speech at the close – carefully stated only facts in regard to what the Singers had done, and with less ‘blow’ than I have often heard.” After the concert, she “heard nothing but the highest praise” from members of the audience.[20] In addition to inviting the FJS to attend “Church Teas” with prominent missionaries and Bengali congregants in November and December, 1889, Matson arranged for the Singers to perform at Bishop Thoburn’s churches in Calcutta and Rangoon.[21] During their subcontinental tour, “the Singers [were] a comfort” to Matson because their presence made her feel connected to her friends and colleagues in the United States.[22] After hearing of the glowing reactions to the FJS’s performances in South Asia, Adam Spence foreshadowed the University’s embrace of Loudin’s troupe when he wrote to Matson that “it seems likely we will want a Jubilee Company.”[23] In July 1890, The Fisk Herald provided an account of a “missionary sermon” held at Fisk’s chapel. At this meeting, Frederick Loudin, who “just returned from their trip around the world,” delivered “a few words in reference to the influence of missions. He spoke especially in feeling terms of meeting Miss Matson, a former teacher [at] Fisk, in India, and of her joy at meeting the Singers.”[24]

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[1] Henrietta Matson to Adam Spence. 3 January, 1890. Auburn Avenue Research Library (AARL). Adam Knight Spence and John Wesley Work Collection (AKSJWWC). Series IV, Box 3, Folder 7.
[2] See Henrietta Matson to Elizabeth Spence. Undated, Ca. November, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 9; Matson to Elizabeth Spence. 24 November, 1889 AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 6;
[3] Henrietta Matson to Adam Spence. 3 January, 1890. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 7.
[4] See Detroit Public Library Special Collections (DPLSC). Fisk Jubilee Singers Scrapbook Collection, E. Azalia Hackley Collection.
[5] These letters are divided between Fisk Special Collections’ Spence Family Collection (Nashville, TN) and The Adam Knight Spence and John Wesley Work Collection at the Auburn Avenue Research Library (Atlanta, GA).
[6] Matson had been a missionary in Africa prior to joining Fisk University in 1870. Toni P. Anderson states that Matson was a “religious force” while at Fisk. Anderson, “Tell Them We Are Singing for Jesus”: The Original Fisk Jubilee Singers and Christian Reconstruction, 1871-1878 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2010), 281, n.54; Andrew Ward, Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), 392.
[7] Henrietta Matson to “Dear Friends,” 10 October, 1887. Fisk Special Collections (FSC). Spence Family Collection (SFC). Box 21, Folder 22.
[8] See Henrietta Matson to Elizabeth Spence. 22 December, 1887. FSC, SFC Box 26, Folder 25; Matson to Elizabeth Spence. 22 September, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 6.
[9] Some of the students were the children of local Indian Christians, but others were orphans whom the missionaries hoped to educate and raise to be practicing Christians.
[10] See, for instance, Henrietta Matson to Mary Spence. 20 April, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 10.
[11] See, for instance, Henrietta Matson to Adam Spence. 17 January, 1888. FSC. SFC. Box 21, Folder 23.
[12] Henrietta Matson to Adam Spence. 28 February, 1889. FSC. SFC. Box 21, Folder 23.
[13] Henrietta Matson to Mary Spence. 20 April, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 10.
[14] Henrietta Matson, “From India’s Coral Strand,” Fisk Herald, Vol. 5, No. 8 (April, 1888): 5-7; Henrietta Matson, “Miss Matson in India,” Fisk Herald, Vol. 7, No. 5 (January, 1890): 11-13.
[15] Matson, “From India’s Coral Strand,” 5-7.
[16] This picture sent to Mary Spence is today in Fisk Special Collections, and it is included at the end of this page. Mary Spence to Henrietta Matson. 16 September, 1888. FSC. SFC. Box 36, Folder 27.
[17] Henrietta Matson to Elizabeth Spence. 22 September, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 6.
[18] Henrietta Matson to Adam Spence. 10 October, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 3.
[19] See Henrietta Matson to Elizabeth Spence. 4 January, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 4.
[20] Henrietta Matson to Elizabeth Spence. November, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 9.
[21] Henrietta Matson to Elizabeth Spence. 24 November, 1889. AARL. AKSJWWC. Series IV, Box 3, Folder 6.
[22] Henrietta Matson to Catherine Spence. 1 February, 1890. FSC. SFC. Box 26, Folder 26.
[23] Adam Spence to Henrietta Matson. 13 April, 1890. FSC. SFC. Box 45, Folder 21.
[24] Anonymous, “Missionary Sermon,” The Fisk Herald, Vol. 7, No. 11 (July, 1890): 3-5.
"Akbar's Tomb"

"Akbar's Tomb"

"Garden View of the Taj Mahal, Agra"

"Garden View of the Taj Mahal, Agra"

Fisk University's Ties to South Asia