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Group photo of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. They were an African-American a cappella ensemble who toured and performed to raise money for their college which was in danger of closing due to lack of funds. The singers pictured here are: Maggie Porter, E.W. Watkins, H.D. Alexander, F.J. Loudin, Thomas Rutling, Jennie Jackson, Mabel Lewis, Ella Sheppard, Maggie Carnes and America W. Robinson.     Date: 1870s
97 Valley Drive

 

i.m. Thomas Rutling, 1854-1915

(back row in photograph, first on right)

 

 

Freed, he joined the Jubilee Singers,

sang spirituals to Queen Victoria.

I read the plaque as we stand outside

the stone terrace by Valley Gardens.

 

Mum tucks her arm through mine,

always on the right after her little stroke,

and we set off to the cemetery to find

his tombstone or, I nod, a spot for her.

 

Thomas’s first memory, I tell Mum,

blood from a horse whip lashing him

and his mother as she was being sold on

without her children. The afternoon’s late,

 

silver birches step forward in the sun.

We discuss the secret codes in gospels

like ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ when Mum

falls silent until her cracked voice

 

picks out ‘Amazing Grace’—how sweet

the sound, that saved a wretch like me—

and I think I’ve never heard her sing

and she sings it word-perfect, beautifully.

 

 

© Stuart Pickford

Picture 10811162, unattributed photograph, 1870s

 

 

Stuart Pickford lives in Harrogate, where Thomas Rutling lived, and teaches in a local comprehensive school. He is married with three children. His second collection, Swimming with Jellyfish, was published by Smith|Doorstop in 2016.