Educator, Fisk Jubilee soprano Jean Harvey Lightfoot dies at 81

SHARE Educator, Fisk Jubilee soprano Jean Harvey Lightfoot dies at 81
unnamed_113.jpg

Jean Harvey Lightfoot was an educator and administrator and longtime singer of spirituals. | Facebook photo

When Jean Harvey Lightfoot was singing at Fisk University, the soprano started hitting high notes “that weren’t even on the music charts,” said friend Delano O’Banion.

John W. Work III, director of Fisk’s famed Jubilee Singers — who’ve been performing old-time spirituals throughout the world since shortly after the end of slavery — couldn’t believe his ears.

“He said, ‘Who is that?’ ’’ according to Ms. Lightfoot’s daughter, Jaronda Lightfoot Hall.

Work located Ms. Lightfoot in a music hall.

Jean Harvey Lightfoot in her younger days. | Provided photo

Jean Harvey Lightfoot in her younger days. | Provided photo

“You have a phenomenal voice,’’ he told her.

She became a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, performing with them on a 1956 European tour that packed 66 concerts in 56 days, said O’Banion, also a member of the troupe.

Audiences in nine countries were treated to what Fisk calls “the secret music African-Americans sang in the fields and behind closed doors for generations.”

They thundered through spine-tingling spirituals like “Done Made My Vow to the Lord.” They did softer tunes such as “Keep Me from Sinking Down.”

Jean Harvey Lightfoot and Delano O’Banion were in the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the John Work Chorale. | Facebook photo

Jean Harvey Lightfoot and Delano O’Banion were in the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the John Work Chorale. | Facebook photo

The Fisk singers were greeted by rapturous audiences in England, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. They even performed behind the Iron Curtain in Leipzig, East Germany, “which was overwhelming,” O’Banion said. “The people came out to hear the Negro spirituals and gave us standing ovations.”

“In Rome, an audience of over 2,000 demanded — and got — eight encores,” according to an account in the Pittsburgh Courier.

“They were weeping and applauding, many, many encores,” said Dr. Orlando Lightfoot, Ms. Lightfoot’s former husband and another member of that 1956 tour.

Jean Harvey Lightfoot’s pure soprano was featured on the Fisk Jubilee Singers Gold and Blue album.

Jean Harvey Lightfoot’s pure soprano was featured on the Fisk Jubilee Singers Gold and Blue album.

In Portugal, “We sang before royalty,” O’Banion said. Afterward, they took up the royals on their invitation to dine at a palace in Lisbon.

It didn’t matter that white European listeners weren’t too familiar with the uniquely American art form. “Negro spirituals heal people, regardless,” O’Banion said.

Her silky soprano led “Rockin’ Jerusalem” on the Fisk singers’ Gold and Blue album. “That was her song,” O’Banion said.

Ms. Lightfoot went on to become an English teacher and administrator who taught at Hyde Park High School, Kennedy-King College and the University of Illinois at Chicago. When she retired, she was dean of students at Columbia College.

Jean Harvey Lightfoot (front row, right) and the John Work Chorale. | Facebook photo

Jean Harvey Lightfoot (front row, right) and the John Work Chorale. | Facebook photo

She never stopped singing. In 1960, she and other members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers formed Chicago’s John W. Work Chorale, naming it after their college music director. O’Banion was the director. They continued to perform the spirituals they loved.

Ms. Lightfoot, who died on Nov. 15 of heart failure at 81, even sang a little with members of the Work Chorale when they visited her at VITAS hospice at Mercy Hospital, relatives said.

She grew up in Bronzeville. It “was segregated and cordoned off, but it had a very positive affect in terms of role identification and the idea of what you could achieve,” said Orlando Lightfoot. Children saw “black doctors, dentists, teachers, the florist, undertakers.”

Young Jean attended Englewood High School. Her mother, Emma, sacrificed to pay for music lessons for her daughter. A hairdresser, she was “on her feet 12 to 15 hours a day,” said Jaronda Lightfoot Hall.

She earned a master’s degree at the University of Chicago and a doctorate at Northwestern University, where she studied education and urban anthropology, her daughter said.

At the time, she was one of a small number of African-American students and teachers on those campuses. If anyone gave her a funny look, she refused to be affected. “That’s their problem, not ours,” she’d say.

After they married, the Lightfoots raised their children in Hyde Park. Later, she lived in South Shore.

Jean Harvey Lightfoot (rear) and daughter Jaronda Lightfoot Hall. | Provided photo

Jean Harvey Lightfoot (rear) and daughter Jaronda Lightfoot Hall. | Provided photo

Ms. Lightfoot was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Congregational Church of Park Manor, where she sang in the choir. For years, Ms. Lightfoot had season tickets to the Goodman Theatre. She loved the voices of opera diva Leontyne Price and gospel queen Albertina Walker.

She dressed herself and her home with flair. She wore eye-catching jewelry and collected African-inspired art.

“She might have on a brooch that really sparkled, or a Nefertiti head, or maybe her earrings were Nefertiti. She would have on a piece of jewelry that would draw you to her,” her daughter said.

Guests loved her paella, redolent of saffron. “She always threw in lots of crab legs,” said longtime friend Carole Wood.

Ms. Lightfoot is also survived by two granddaughters. At her memorial service, spirituals including “Ride the Chariot” were sung.

Jean Harvey Lightfoot with her son-in-law, Lee Michael Hall, and granddaughters Jaya (left) and Jorie (right). | Provided photo

Jean Harvey Lightfoot with her son-in-law, Lee Michael Hall, and granddaughters Jaya (left) and Jorie (right). | Provided photo

The Latest
The acidity of the Champagne cuts through the fat and salt or the potatoes, while the fat and salt balances the acidity.
Curly? Steak? Waffle? Crinkle cut? There is cause for debate around which particular french fry is best.
Bowman returns to an official NHL post for the first time since 2021, when he resigned as Hawks GM during the sexual assault scandal.
Utah’s capital city was the only candidate for 2034 after the Olympic committee gave Salt Lake City exclusive negotiating rights last year.
State troopers responded to a rollover crash early Wednesday in the eastbound lanes of the Eisenhower just east of the Tri-State Tollway, Illinois State police said.