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Plaque honours Harrogate man born into slavery

Pictured from left with the Thomas Rutling plaque on Valley Drive are house owner Jean Davison, Mayor Michael Newby, Peter Hacker and Henry Pankhurst of Harrogate Civic Society and historian Malcolm Neesam.   (140205M1c)

Pictured from left with the Thomas Rutling plaque on Valley Drive are house owner Jean Davison, Mayor Michael Newby, Peter Hacker and Henry Pankhurst of Harrogate Civic Society and historian Malcolm Neesam. (140205M1c)

A “remarkable” Harrogate man, born into slavery but who went on to perform before the Queen and the American President, has been honoured nearly 100 years after his death.

Thomas Rutling, born into a slaving family in Tennessee in 1854, went on to found the Fisk Jubilee Singers who became hugely popular in 19th century Europe and America.

He travelled the world with them, performing before Queen Victoria and President Grant before settling on Harrogate’s Valley Drive.

Now, nearly 100 years after his death in 1915, he has been remembered with a brown plaque on the wall outside the house where he lived.

“He was a remarkable man,” said Henry Pankhurst, chairman of the civic society.

“It’s important to remember anybody who had such a significant life.”

Jean Davison, who now lives in the house he occupied, first approached the civic society after reading about Mr Rutland in an article in the Advertiser. It’s taken a year to come to fruition but Mrs Davison, along with Mayor Michael Newby, local historians and members of the civic society, unveiled the plaque last week.

Rutling was born into a slaving family in Tennessee in 1854. He was never a slave himself but recounted in his memoirs ‘the feel of the lash licking his infant arm as his mother clung to him’.

After finding fame with the Jubilee Singers he was reluctant to return to America, where attitudes towards slaving families were still unsettled. He settled in Harrogate instead, giving recitals and working as a voice teacher.

“He was quite famous, yet he decided to settle in Harrogate,” said Mr Pankhurst.

“There certainly wouldn’t have been many prominent black people in Harrogate at that time. And, being as famous as he was, he would have drawn a lot of attention.

“He was someone who, through his own volition, has contributed to the town. This is to recognise someone who made a significant difference.”

 

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