Professor named Author of the Year
July 1, 2011
Anderson chats with a fan.
Anderson chats with a fan.

Dr. Toni Anderson, Chair of the Music Department, called winning the Georgia Author of the Year last month one of the most surreal moments of her life.

“I was honestly stunned,” she said. “I admit I knew little about my fellow nominees, many who had authored multiple books. It was very intimidating to get to the event and read their bios. I knew I didn’t have a chance when I saw who my competition was. It was great just to be there as a first-time author. ”

When her name was called as the winner of best creative nonfiction history for “‘Tell Them We Are Singing for Jesus’: The Original Fisk Jubilee Singers and Christian Reconstruction, 1871-1878,” she said she was flooded with many emotions.

“I was pleased and humbled, all at the same time,” she said. “And I was so grateful to my publisher, Mercer University Press, who nominated me. It was a real mark of honor from them.”

Dr. Anderson’s book garnered praise from judge Samuel Fred Roach.

“Clear, honest, perceptive and vivid character and institutional collages add to the human mosaic depicted by the work,” he wrote in his comments. “This volume presents the best combination of research, vividness of style and mature analysis...the interplay of differing and sometimes conflicting personalities involved in the story is presented with fairness, sensitivity and insightfulness.”

Dr. Toni Anderson is congratulated by novelist and alumnus Terry Kay ’59, H’99, who received a lifetime achievement award at the ceremony.
Dr. Toni Anderson is congratulated by novelist and alumnus Terry Kay ’59, H’99, who received a lifetime achievement award at the ceremony.

But more than accolades and awards, Dr. Anderson was passionate about telling the story about the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group she learned about while teaching at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, a historically black institution.

“Being on the music faculty, of course the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers came up, and I was intrigued,” she said.

She made the group the topic of her doctoral dissertation at Georgia State University, but she couldn’t let it go. She decided to write about the singers and their determination to save their school.

Fisk University was opened in Nashville, Tenn., in 1866 to offer a liberal arts education especially for newly freed African-Americans. In fact, all but two of the original Jubilee Singers were former slaves. But within five years, the school was in financial trouble.

George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor, decided to create a nine-member choral ensemble of students and take it on tour, hoping to earn money for the school.

The initial response to the musicians was discouraging, with audiences unsure how to react to black singers who were not performing in the popular “minstrel” style.

But soon, thanks to the choir’s talent, attitudes began to change. Skepticism gave way to standing ovations and critical praise. In 1873 the group toured Europe for the first time. Funds raised that year were used to construct the school’s first permanent building, Jubilee Hall, which houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria during the tour as a gift from England to Fisk.

Anderson said receiving the author of the year award was a validation of the 10 years she spent working on the book.

“It was incredibly rewarding, considering the many years I’ve invested in this,” she said. “It is such an amazing story, and I feel honored to be able to tell it.”

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