George Cooper is the first “Shadow Warrior” I’ve personally known before writing about. We attended Fisk University together and knowing his history is important to knowing George. In those days, Fisk had just over 2,000 students. There were those hardly anybody knew and those that knew everybody. George was in the latter category. He had a big afro, was always smiling and was deadly serious about his music, the Jubilee Singers and Black history.
Part of that history is the story of Ella Shepherd. She was born into slavery on Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Plantation in Nashville, TN in 1851. While she was young, her father was able to buy his own freedom for $1,800. His former master broke a promise to let him buy Ella. It took the threat of her mother saying she’d “take Ella and jump into the river than see her a slave” before she was allowed to be sold to her father for $350. Her mother, still in slavery was taken to Mississippi.
After marrying another slave woman whose freedom he purchased. Simon Sheppard took his family from Nashville, TN to Cincinnati, OH after a race riot in 1856 made it impossible to pay his debts. His family could be seized as assets and sold back into slavery. In Ohio, Ella attended a colored school and began studying music. She was a prodigy and soon had her own piano. A rarity for black children.
After Simon died in 1866, Ella helped support the family by performing at local functions. She was seen by a prominent white music instructor who agreed to provide her advanced training. Ella was his only student of color, entering thru the back door between the hours of 9 and 10 PM.
In 1868, Ella accepted a teaching position at a school near Nashville in Gallatin, TN. She took her meager earnings and entered the “Fisk Free School for Blacks”, which in 1866 became Fisk University. She became the music teacher at Fisk. Becoming the only Black staff member at the school until 1875.
Because of financial difficulties at the school. Fisk’s Treasurer organized a bunch of students to sing for money. After some success locally, George White was given permission to form a group and go on National Tour in 1871. Ella was one of nine students selected for the original Jubilee Singers where she also served as pianist and assistant trainer.
The first tour raised $20,000 which purchased land for the new campus. The Jubilee Singers was often the only source of revenue for the school and their concert tour was extended to seven years. They raised over $150,000 in America and Europe, financing the construction of Jubilee Hall which still serves as a women’s dormitory. Sheppard was the backbone of the Jubilee Singers and later began lecturing throughout the South forming Jubilee choirs. She later found her mother and a sister and brought them to Nashville.
George would not mind that I used part of his story to tell that of Ella Sheppard. Her story is intertwined with his. George Cooper was a Jubilee Singer while at Fisk and toured to some of the same locations as Ella. I hesitated to use the word “was” as George certainly “is” a Jubilee Singer as that’s not something that ever left his soul. He’s active in the Jubilee Singers Alumni (JSA) and part of the JSA Advisory Board. The legacy of Ella Sheppard is strong in George. He once wrote of her, “If not for her, her intellect, her spirit, and her musical genius, Fisk would not have survived. George White started the Singers but Ella Sheppard nurtured the seed and grew it into the powerful force that it became. Those who don’t know of her, I ask that you take some time today and discover a woman who essentially gave birth to American Music. Ella Sheppard-Moore! Fiskites, a TRUER Daughter, there never was!” In 2009, George founded the Ella Sheppard School of Music (ESSOM) in his home town of Chicago.
I’ve neglected to this point to mention George’s accomplishments as a musician. Although he got his start as part of the All-City Choir in Chicago, later joining the Jubilee Singers at Fisk. It’s playing the piano for which he’s better known. His nickname is “Maestro” and his mastery of classical music has taken him all over the world. The world class pianist has recorded for Polygram and Capitol Records and toured with Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, Peabo Bryson, Natalie Cole and his home girl Chaka Khan. He did a series of instructional videos on, “Secrets of the Chopin Etudes.” He’s performed as a solo artist and part of the group of Fiskites R&B band, “Autumn” and heads the GIII Jazz Trio. He’s presently the Director of the Lutheran School Gospel Chorus, is the Assistant Minister of Music for the church he grew up in, St. Mark AME Zion and Minister of Music at the Congregational Church of Park Manor. Like Bo Jackson, George Cooper knows music. But it’s not his playing or singing that makes him a Shadow Warrior… it’s his teaching.
At the school he founded, the Ella Sheppard School of Music, he gives free music lessons to children 2–14. He solicited friends, his church and other sponsors to keep the school going. One friend, Tamera Fair, (a fellow Fiskite) provided space for the school at one of the Premier Child Care locations she owns and said this about George.
“Not often in life do we personally have the chance to meet living angels, living legends. We read about them. Now we “like” and “follow” them. I am in a select class that shares time and space with one, Maestro, George Cooper. Since the moment we met in the yard of Fisk University, I knew Geo was a talent for the times, correction for all time. I had no idea that we would work so closely together in the future. Geo was looking for a home to put his music school. I had far more space than I needed. He agreed to put the school in the building and has provided music lessons to hundreds of children in the west side of Chicago for over eight years. Many of the students have continued their study in music and are following their teacher’s footsteps and becoming accomplished pianists. His passion shows in every note he hits and every lesson he gives to every child he touches. I feel honored to call someone so great, friend!”
Had this been all he’d accomplished, George would have provided a great service but he does so much more. When I knew George he had not yet become Geo (Gee-Oh) so I’m slow to embrace the name but Geo also an Ambassador for the HHW (Henry Hendricks Weddington) School for the Performing Arts. HHW is an open walls school serving children from all over Chicago. They audition for acceptance and get paid for their participation. Geo has been teaching Master Classes, doing arrangements and composing for them for years. I watched a recent video HHW performing one of his arrangements, Njiculela, Es Una Historia, I Am Singing which instantly dispels everything you may have assumed about Chicago if you only read the news. At least 5 of those students have gone on to Fisk University and become Jubilee Singers. In writing this story I found that George was always recruiting for Fisk and the Jubilee Singers… always teaching. George said of his efforts to bring music to youth, “I’ll keep going ‘till my breath runs out!” I won’t wait until then to say thank you!
There are a few things that are the essence of who George is. Chicagoan, musician, Fiskite, Jubilee Singer, a member of Omega Psi Phi, father, teacher and in his own way Historian. One of his arrangements and compositions for HHW was a Black Heroes History Medley. He’s always looking for teachable moments whether talking about music, sports, Fisk or our nation. A true believer that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. George will keep you and the children he comes in contact with informed of their history. For that reason, he’s a Shadow Warrior.
Originally published July 7, 2017