More About Our Trip

Dr. Lorna Andrade emailed this to the Spirituals Choir after our return from our trip and has kindly agreed to share it with readers of this blog. Lorna co-founded the choir with Jim Thomas as part of the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP and has been involved with it ever since. She’s also a past vice president of the MV NAACP.

 Sunday’s trip to the Royall House and Slave Quarters on the air-conditioned bus, with a nice driver as well, was magnificent.

The luncheon hosted by our choir director, Jim, was delightful and heartfelt.

Organist Phil Dietterich and soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross

Organist Phil Dietterich and soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross

Reverend Phil [Dietterich]’s organ presentation was just magnificent  — he’s a true MASTER!

And our guest soloist, Elizabeth [Lyra Ross], was truly soulful as well.

The Spirits of my Ancestors were crying out to me, and I came home and wept with great spiritual conviction.

For the women to have gone through such deep mental anguish and breeding and childbirth on the floor with straw bedding, and the grueling working hours and conditions: this became very visual for me — once again, since I had previously visited these quarters in my younger years at college.

I am not leaving out the torture of our men slaves as well, but I have a more spiritual connection to the women. For those of you who have given birth, you must imagine the pain and suffering endured by each woman, and the mere fact that they had to get back up to work in the hot kitchens, and taking care of crops, and the Big House, etc.

As we sing each spiritual song, remembering each code, the language of each slave, we become more compassionate and understanding of each struggle!

Peace and Blessings,



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Big Day in Boston and Medford

Yesterday the Spirituals Choir traveled to the big city to sing — and what a great day it was!

boarding busHaving made it to Vineyard Haven in time for the 7 a.m. boat, we boarded our chartered bus in Woods Hole.

Our first stop was at Boston’s Old North Church, where we were scheduled to sing at the 11 a.m. service. Old Boston’s streets are not bus-friendly, so the bus let us off on Commercial Street. We hiked up and then down Hull Street to the church.

Appropriately enough, “Climbing Up the Mountain” is in our regular repertoire this year. When we got to the historic church, the steps up to the balcony were far steeper and narrower than Hull Street. We all made it to the top.

As with many a mountain, the view from the top was pretty cool.

The pews of Old North Church

The pews of Old North Church, between the end of the 9 a.m. service and the beginning of the 11 a.m.

We had just enough time for our accompanist, Phil Dietterich, to get used to the organ and for us and our guest soloist, Elizabeth Lyra Ross, to have a brief sound check.

Phil Dietterich and Elizabeth Lyra Ross at sound check

Phil Dietterich and Elizabeth Lyra Ross at sound check

To make sure that we were singing to the congregation below and not the wall behind the organ, Jim directed us from the side. The layout of the narrow balcony made this challenging: if anyone leaned forward too far, no one sitting to his or her left could see Jim. We managed!

Jim warms us up

Jim warms us up

Phil played the prelude, based on “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” then we sang the choral prelude: “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” and “Wasn’t That a Wide River?” The regular service included both a baptism and Holy Communion. Ms. Ross sang the offertory anthem, a very moving “Steal Away to Jesus.” The communion anthem featured us singing “This Little Light of Mine.”

Shortly afterward, we sang the choral postlude — “Done Made My Vow,” “Soon I Will Be Done,” and “In Bright Mansions Above” — after which the service was brought to a close by Phil with his own “Improvisations on ‘Ride On, King Jesus.’”

Then it was up and down Hull Street again to meet our bus. Next stop: the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford. After checking in with Gracelaw Simmons, our contact person, we strolled around the corner and down Main Street for lunch at the Sei Bar, a pan-Asian restaurant. (Highly recommended, by the way: When you visit the Royall House, check it out.)

Leading the horde back from lunch: from left, Jim Thomas, Warren Doty, Nan Doty, and Phil Dietterich. On the left is the brick wall that partially surrounds the Royall House and Slave Quarters.

Leading the horde back from lunch: from left, Jim Thomas, Warren Doty, Nan Doty, and Phil Dietterich. On the left is the brick wall that partially surrounds the Royall House and Slave Quarters.

Before our 4 p.m. performance, we had time for a tour of the Royall House, ably guided by the museum’s part-time executive director, Tom Lincoln. While we experienced the physical house — the small rooms, low ceilings, and furnishings — Tom provided the context that linked the mansion’s inhabitants to the slaves who made their luxurious life possible. (The Royall family often consisted of only two adults and two growing children. When Isaac Royall Sr. and his wife, Elizabeth, took up residence in the 1730s, they brought with them at least 27 slaves from their sugar plantation in Antigua.)

Museum executive director Tom Lincoln makes a point to his attentive listeners. That's the Slave Quarters behind him.

Museum executive director Tom Lincoln makes a point to his attentive listeners. That’s the Slave Quarters behind him.

The estate, comprising some 500 acres, was like a small, mostly self-sufficient town. Nearly all the work done to sustain it — cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and linens, gardening, orchard tending, horsekeeping, driving, carpentry, blacksmithery, and so on and on — was done by slaves. Feeding the family and their frequent dinner guests took up most of every 24 hours, which is why there are pallets in the winter kitchen for the “staff” to sleep on between the end of one workday and the beginning of the next a scant few hours later.

Virtually every room has its own fireplace. Think, said Tom, how much work went into keeping those fires burning. No kidding: felling the trees, sawing them into logs, splitting the logs, carrying the wood, starting the fire, feeding it, banking it . . .

royall PRUpstairs, close to what might have been the master bedroom, is the dressing room. Clothing was far more elaborate in the 18th century, and manners more formal. The elite, and those who aspired to lofty status, didn’t venture downstairs except in proper attire — and “proper attire” could seldom be achieved without help. Here the master and mistress of the mansion would have been dressed by their slaves, in a relationship of considerable intimacy.

What the house slaves must have known about the family they served! But, as Tom pointed out, very little of what the slaves did or thought has come down to us. Often we know no more than their first names, and sometimes not even that.

We don’t know what songs the Royalls’ slaves sang either. Since many of them came originally from the Caribbean, they might not have had much contact with slaves in the southern colonies of what became the United States.

Still, as we sang — on a porch outside the main house, facing the Slave Quarters — we couldn’t help but imagine the enslaved residents of this place singing songs like “Soon I Will Be Done” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” Surely some of the them would have accompanied the family to worship services in churches that looked much like Old North Church, and come home impressed with the Bible stories that grew into spirituals like “Climbing Up the Mountain” and “Where Will I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”

We could have hung out for hours afterward talking with members of the audience, not only about the U.S. Slave Song Project but about the work that’s being done in the Medford schools and wider community about local and national African American history. But our bus was waiting, and at the other end of the road our ferry home.

audience 2

Some of our audience

audience 1

More of our audience

The 7:30 ferry was loading as our bus pulled into Woods Hole. The catch? The 7:30 goes into Oak Bluffs, and all of our cars were in Vineyard Haven. Lucky for us, the freight boat Governor was also loading, destination Vineyard Haven. Several of us sang most of the way across Vineyard Sound, probably driving some of our fellow passengers crazy. We sounded pretty good, if I do say so myself.

The front of the Royall House

The front of the Royall House


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Why We Sing: Roger

Here’s the second in a series about members of the Spirituals Choir, why we sing and how we got here. C’mon, all you past and present singers: let’s hear from you!

Roger Thayer: I met Jim Thomas 40 years ago in the Paul Hill Chorale in Washington, D.C,, where we sang many, many concerts in the Kennedy Center. Jim was one of our star soloists. Then I was pleased to meet him again at the Vineyard Haven ilbrary, where he lectured on the slaves and African memorabilia. He and Georgia Franklin invited me to attend a meeting in her living room, where we started the NAACP Spirituals Choir which preeceded Jim’s USSSP.

I will sing as long as my voice holds out.


Jim Thomas (left) leads the choir.

The Spirituals Choir at East Chop Light, July 2012. That’s Roger in the yellow shirt, seated, over toward the right.



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Our Rousing Weekend

The Spirituals Choir at Union Chapel. Artist: Barney Zeitz.

The Spirituals Choir at Union Chapel. Artist: Barney Zeitz.

The Spirituals Choir’s annual performance at Union Chapel was a rousing success. The chapel’s acoustics are wonderful. Our songs rose to the rafters, not least on our finale, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which literally brought the audience to its feet.

Sculptor Barney Zeitz sketched us while we sang. (Barney does astonishing work in glass and metal. Check out his website for details and photos.)

Organist Lavert Stuart joined us from Cleveland, playing both a prelude and an intermezzo on Union Chapel’s impressive organ. Chris Seidel accompanied us on snare drum for the “Battle Hymn.”

2014 UU coverBoth Lavert and Chris joined us again on Sunday morning, when Jim Thomas and the choir were featured at the Unitarian Universalist Society‘s weekly service. The theme was “Cries for Freedom and Social Justice.” Frederick Douglass’s image graced the cover of the order of service.

Words from Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, prefaced the order itself:

“The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it. I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star. It smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind and moved in every storm.”

In one of the readings Douglass told of how he learned the alphabet and started learning to read as a young boy, at a time when it was illegal in most southern states to teach slaves to read and write. His mistress stopped the lessons when ordered to do so by her husband. Teach a slave to read and write, so the masters’ thinking went, and he or she becomes useless as a slave.

Douglass recounts how his mistress, at first gentle and compassionate, hardened herself to the demands of her station and became as cruel to the slaves as any other slaveholder.

The slaveowners were right: literacy was dangerous to the old order. Douglass became a voracious reader, and what he read inspired him to seek freedom. After escaping to the North, he wrote his Narrative of the Life, which demonstrated to many pre–Civil War white people both the inhumanity of slavery and the humanity of the African slaves. Douglass went on to become an eminent abolitionist orator.

His words proved an ideal setting for the spirituals, and for the concluding “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which once again brought everyone to their feet.

The next adventure for the U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir is a trip to Boston on Sunday, August 3. We’ll be singing at Old North Church in the morning, and at the Royall House and Slave Quarters museum in Medford in the afternoon.

Before that, however, we’ll be making our annual appearance at the East Chop Light for free a sunset performance on Sunday, July 27. Starting time TBA, but should be after 5:30 p.m. This is part of the Della Hardman Day celebration in Oak Bluffs, honoring the late Della Hardman, artist and educator. “Savor the moment” was her watchword, and the theme of the day. The view from the lighthouse is always beautiful, but when sun and clouds cooperate it’s spectacular.

We’ve also been invited to sing at a tribute to Congressman John Lewis, a noted veteran of the civil rights movement, at Union Chapel on August 12, More about that later.



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Union Chapel, July 19

July is only half gone, but the Spirituals Choir has had a full month already, with even more to come.

On July’s first two Sundays, the 6th and the 13th, we sang for the brunch patrons at Lola’s restaurant, off the Beach Road in Oak Bluffs. Then we got to help ourselves to the brunch buffet — what a treat! Check out Lola’s for great food and frequent live music.

In between our two appearances at Lola’s, on July 10, we made our Chilmark library debut to a standing-room-only audience.

Coming up soon — next Saturday, July 19, at 7 p.m. — is our annual benefit performance at Union Chapel. We’ll be joined by organist Lavert Stuart and percussionist Chris Seidel, who plays the snare drum for our dramatic finale, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Come on out!


2014 UC card


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Amistad Anniversary, 1839–2014

Today, July 2, is the 175th anniversary of the mutiny by enslaved Africans against the officers and crew of La Amistad, a Cuban-owned schooner that was transporting them to a life of servitude on a Cuban sugar plantation. The mutineers took control of the ship, but their attempt to return to Africa was thwarted by the Cuban sailors. On August 26, the Amistad was captured by a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Washington, and taken to New London, Connecticut.

The case attracted widespread attention. The Spanish authorities — Cuba was a Spanish possession — demanded that the mutineers be returned to Cuba to stand trial for piracy and murder: the captain and a crew member had been killed in the revolt. The Cuban owners wanted their “property” back, claiming that the slaves had been born in Cuba. U.S. abolitionists insisted that the enslaved Africans be returned to their homelands.

In 1807, the United States had joined with Great Britain in declaring the slave trade illegal, but slaves were still being imported into Brazil in the 1850s and Cuba in the 1860s.

On January 13, 1840, after a trial in a federal district court in Connecticut, the judge ruled that the mutineers had been illegally enslaved, that they would not be returned to Cuba, and that they should be granted free passage back to Africa. The Spanish authorities and U.S. president Martin Van Buren appealed the decision. A second federal district court judge upheld the first. President Van Buren appealed again, to the disgust of abolitionists. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Former president John Quincy Adams, by that time a member of Congress, played a key role in the Africans’ defense. On March 9, 1841, the Court ruled, with only one dissent, that the Africans had been enslaved illegally and had been exercising their natural right to fight for their freedom. In November, with financial support from their abolitionist allies, the Africans sailed for home.

In 1999 a replica of the Amistad was built at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. She was launched the following year. Ever since, whether on day sails, on longer voyages, or in port, her mission has been “to foster unity among people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, and to promote the legacies of leadership, cooperation, perseverance and social justice inherent
the Amistad Incident of 1839.”

The Spirituals Choir sang at Vineyard Haven harbor when the new Amistad came to visit in 2006.



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Time Change: Lola’s

The Spirituals Choir’s performance at Lola’s Sunday brunch has been moved back to 12:15 p.m. We’ll be singing at Lola’s next Sunday, July 6, and the Sunday following, July 13.

Lola’s is located on Island Inn Road, off the Beach Road between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. The Sunday brunch menu is to die for. Check out this sample!

Hope to see you there.

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