The singers were a fundraising effort for Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee, although one that was not initially approved by the university itself. The treasurer at Fisk at that time was George L. White. In an effort to raise money for the University, he gathered a nine-member chorus of students to go on tour in an attempt to earn money. On October 6, 1871, the group of students left for their U.S. tour. They began in small towns, some of which were not receptive to their performances.
After a concert performed in Cincinnati, Ohio, the group donated their small US$50 profit to the victims of the notorious 1871 fire in Chicago, Illinois. The group then traveled on to Columbus, Ohio where they were tired and discouraged. White, determined to raise their spirits, named them "The Jubilee Singers." This was a reference to the year of Jubilee in the Bible in the 25th chapter of the book of Leviticus.
Soon, the audiences they performed for began to appreciate their beautiful voices and they began to receive praise for their talents. Prior to the formation of this group, most black music was being performed by white musicians and it took a while for audiences to accept the talent of The Jubilee Singers as a group of black performers. Eventually, they were able to earn enough money to send back to Fisk University to help cover some expenses. Near the end of 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant invited them to perform at The White House.
After a tour of Europe in 1873, the group earned enough money to send back to Fisk to construct the university's first-ever permanent building. The building was named Jubilee Hall, and it is still standing today.