Dedication

The Spirituals Choir’s presentation schedule generally doesn’t begin till mid-June. Through May, we’re learning the songs we haven’t sung before, getting reacquainted with familiar ones, and coalescing as an ensemble. Our summer members often don’t return till the end of the month.

But when we were invited to sing at the unveiling of the plaque marking the 28th stop on the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail, no way could we turn it down.

Stained-glass windows in the Grace church sanctuary honor the Rev. Absalom Jones (left) and the Rt. Rev. John Burgess.

The 28th stop on the trail is at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. Grace Episcopal has demonstrated its commitment to local African-American history in multiple ways. The plaque that has been mounted near the Woodlawn Avenue entrance to the parish hall commemorates the Rev. Absalom Jones (1746–1818), first African American bishop ordained in the Episcopal Church; the Rt. Rev. John Melville Burgess (1909–2003), first African-American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church; and liturgical artist Allan Rohan Crite (1910–2007), whose mural was installed in Grace’s children’s chapel in the 1950s.

The parish hall was packed with attentive listeners as speakers introduced each of the honorees and the church’s commitment to local African-American history and the struggle for racial justice. Elaine Weintraub, co-founder with Carrie Tankard of the M.V. African-American Heritage Trail, spoke of how the trail began with a promise she made to a young student who asked where the black people were in Vineyard history. Elaine said she didn’t know but she would find out. And she did.

In the mid-1990s it seemed astonishing when the trail dedicated its fourth or fifth plaque. But the research has continued, our knowledge of the Vineyard’s African-American history has broadened and deepened, and now the trail has 28 stations on it. Now in its second edition, Elaine’s book Lighting the Trail: The African-American Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard, written with Carrie Tankard and with photographs by Mark Alan Lovewell, covers the first 26 stops on the trail.

Leigh Ann Yuen read from the powerful, inspiring Beatitudes from Slavery to Civil Rights, by Carole Boston Weatherford — published for children, but this adult was deeply moved by it. Singing the slave songs one can’t help but acknowledge the importance of faith and religious imagery to the enslaved and those escaping slavery. This little book makes it real.

After the program, everyone trooped outside to watch the unveiling of the plaque, presided over by Julia Burgess, Bishop Burgess’s daughter, a Vineyard resident. Then everyone trooped back in to hear the Spirituals Choir sing “Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Coming,” which celebrates the approach of the Union army during the Civil War; and “Done Made My Vow to the Lord,” in which those preparing to escape slavery on the Underground Railroad vowed that they never would turn back but would press on to “see what the end’s gonna be.”

Allan Rohan Crite’s mural in the children’s chapel at Grace church. The banner at the top reads O ye seas and floods, O ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord, praise him and magnify him forever.” Adapted from the “Benedicite omnia opera.”

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Come Sing with Us!

Rehearsals are under way for the Spirituals Choir’s 14th (I think) season. If you’ve ever attended one of our presentations and thought this is something you’d like to be part of — now’s the time. Lower voices — altos, tenors, and basses — are especially welcome, but if you’re a soprano, don’t let that stop you. We rehearse at 6 p.m. every Wednesday afternoon in the Windemere recreation room. It’s most easily reached from the parking area behind Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. If you want directions, leave a message and I’ll get back to you.

This year’s repertoire includes some regulars, like “Where Will I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?,” “In Bright Mansions Above,” “Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Comin’,” “Done Made My Vow to the Lord,” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”  Others, like “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” are familiar enough, and some are new to most of us, like “It’s Me,” “I’ve Been Toiling at the Hill,” and “A Wheel in a Wheel.”

Singing these songs, and learning more about the enslaved people who created them and kept them alive, is a powerful and transformative experience. Several of these songs are helping me get through the very troubled times we’re in now. People whose situations were far worse and more hopeless sang to make their lives bearable and to imagine a better future. Their songs renew my spirit and give me hope. Come join us!

Flyer from our 2017 presentation at the West Tisbury library

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Fundraiser for 1854

You’ll be hearing more about this project in coming months, but for now here’s a brief introduction. When he died in 2015, the late Jack Schimmelman, a great fan of the spirituals and the Spirituals Choir, left behind 1854: A Folk Opera, a detailed concept about Vineyarders gathering to debate abolition at a hypothetical town meeting. The slave songs (spirituals) are an integral part of the piece.

The year 1854 was indeed an important one, not only on Martha’s Vineyard but across Massachusetts and the non-slaveholding states of the North. Thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave-catchers roamed the northern states at will, arresting those suspected of being fugitive slaves and returning them to captivity. The black men and women apprehended had no real rights, and anyone who aided them or interfered with the slave-catchers was subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. The North was fighting back by passing personal liberty laws and forming “anti-man-hunting leagues” to protect both fugitive slaves and free blacks from arrest.

In September 1854, one Randall Burton stowed away on board ship but was apprehended at Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven). Interned aboard the Franklin, he escaped in a ship’s dinghy and eventually, with the help of the Wampanoag, made his way to New Bedford and freedom.

A script has been developed from Schimmelman’s original work. While Vineyarders debate the repercussions of the Fugitive Slave Act, Randall Burton is making his way from Holmes Hole to Gay Head. While sheriff and deputy sheriff try to catch him, others cheer him on and even actively aid his escape. The cast includes both fictional characters and those based on historical figures — and of course the slave songs have a starring role. Also central is the Griot, storyteller, singer, and a powerful figure from African traditions.

The play had a successful read-through this past Wednesday. The tentative plan is to do a staged reading this fall with a full production in the summer of 2019. To help raise funds to make this happen, a Spring Gala for 1854 will be held next Thursday, April 19, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the M.V. Film Center in the Tisbury Marketplace. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the door or from the Film Center. This Red Carpet Event features —

  • Live music by César Atzic Marquez
  • A silent auction
  • A showing at 7:30 of Agents of Change, an hour-long documentary about the fight to include black history and other ethnic studies in college curriculums
  • The chance to have your photo taken with the Griot
  • Wine, sparkling water, and other refreshments

Please join us!

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New Season Starting!

Jim Thomas is back on the Vineyard! Rehearsals for the Spirituals Choir’s 2018 season will start on Wednesday, April 25, at the usual time — 6 p.m. — and at the usual place: the rec room at Windemere. New members are welcome! Leave a comment here if you need directions.

Jim wants to start the rehearsal on time. Some of us haven’t seen each other since last August, so feel free to show up a little early to have time to catch up with your fellow singers.

The Spirituals Choir’s season runs through late August. We sing at libraries, schools, houses of worship, and even outdoors.  If you or your organization would like to host a presentation, contact Jim Thomas at 703-407-1207. Most of our performances are on Martha’s Vineyard, but we have traveled off-island — for instance, to the Royall House & Slave Quarters in West Medford and the Old North Church in Boston. If logistics can be arranged, we’re up for it!

 

Jim Thomas and some of the choir performing at the Chilmark library, June 21, 2017

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Her Too

Not so very long ago, the phrase “marital rape” was an oxymoron. Rape meant non-consensual sex, but since a husband was entitled to have sex with his wife whether she consented or not, rape could not happen in marriage.

Nineteenth-century U.S. white feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone argued that a married woman’s right to say no to sexual intercourse was a key to women’s equality, but it was not until the 1960s and ’70s that, thanks in large part to the feminist movement, the laws began to change, and along with them popular attitudes. Now “marital rape” is widely considered a form of domestic violence.

As legions of women come forward today to say that they/we too have been subjected to sexual harassment and assault, I think of the enslaved women who endured forced sex with no recourse whatsoever. Their masters, masters’ sons, neighbors, guests, overseers — any white man with the owner’s permission — had the right to sex whenever they wanted. Not infrequently the sex led to pregnancy and the pregnancy to the birth of the rapist’s child, who would then become the rapist’s property.

I take it for granted that enslaved men and boys were also subjected to rape and other sexual abuse. Small consolation that they could not become pregnant.

The names of most of the enslaved women subjected to rape and other sexual abuse are unknown to history, but one of the few whose name survives is Celia, thanks to a 1855 court case, State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave.

According to an eloquent Washington Post story about the case, Celia

warned the white slave owner that the rapes had to stop. Celia, 19, had endured five years of assaults by Robert Newsom, the Missouri widower in his 70s who’d purchased her when she was 14. She’d borne two of her predator’s children.

She warned him again and again. He came to her cabin anyway. She killed him with a blow to the head, cremated him in a roaring fire, and took his bones out with the ashes in the morning.

In Missouri in 1855,  it was a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled,” allowing women to argue self-defense in resisting such assaults.

Celia’s court-appointed defense attorney argued that this applied to enslaved women. Not surprisingly, the jury of 12 white men, most of them pro-slavery and/or slave owners, did not agree. Celia was convicted of first-degree murder and was hanged.

This young woman’s courage takes my breath away. Against odds far longer than what most of us face today, she asserted her right to autonomy and self-respect. When you fear the repercussions of speaking up, remember Celia.

Remember her name.

Her too.

 

 

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Last Chance to Hear Us in 2017

The Spirituals Choir closes out its 2017 season with a presentation this Saturday, August 5, at the Oak Bluffs library as part of its second annual African American Literature and Culture Festival. The festival opens on Friday evening, August 4, at 6 p.m. with a reception for a retrospective showing of paintings by Olive “Cutie” Bowles. Saturday brings a full schedule of events, ending with our performance from 3 to 4 p.m.

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July 22 @ Union Chapel

Since our inaugural presentation at the Anchors (the Edgartown Council on Aging) in mid-June, the Spirituals Choir has sung at the Tisbury School; at the libraries in Edgartown, Chilmark, and West Tisbury; as part of the Wednesday lunch-time series at Union Chapel; and most recently at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

Director Jim Thomas at Union Chapel. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Tomorrow night, Saturday, July 22, we return to Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, for our annual July performance. It starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. They will be available at the door and can be obtained in advance from choir members. The proceeds benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. Children under 12 get in free.

The prelude, by guest organist Lavert Stuart, will begin at 7:20. It is expected to include work by Florence Price, the first black woman to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music.

This year’s program, “Songs from the Fields,” ranges from “Wasn’t That a Wide River,” commemorating the sea voyage from Africa, to songs celebrating the approach of the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War and, finally, the “Great Day” of emancipation. In between come songs of forced separation from loved ones, songs inspired by Bible stories (“Jacob’s Ladder” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”), and songs from the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses and guides that from 1830 to 1860 helped slaves escape to the North. These include “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” whose verses provide an oral map for the journey.

Spirituals are songs sung by African slaves in the U.S. between 1619 and 1865. When former slaves performed these songs after Emancipation, they were often asked to remain seated, lest they tower over their white audiences and intimidate them. Thus the choir sings sitting down and with only percussion accompaniment. Mr. Thomas explains how the songs evolved and the various purposes they served for their singers. His powerful baritone leads the choir, which is made up of Vineyard summer and year-round residents.

Mr. Thomas founded and directs the U.S. Slave Song Project, which is dedicated to educating the public about the slave songs. The Spirituals Choir brings these songs to life in their performances.

Lavert Stuart is the organist and choir director at Cleveland’s Antioch Baptist Church. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, he also helped develop Boston’s Black Heritage Trail. In 2010 the Boston City Council honored him for “45 years of providing spiritual leadership through music ministry, for providing community service in the Cities of Boston and Cleveland, and for his significant commitment to developing interest and knowledge in Black history and culture.” Stuart’s keyboard repertoire ranges from traditional church music to gospel to jazz.

Jim Thomas, a seasonal Vineyard resident, is an alumnus of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Robert Shaw Chorale, and the Paul Hill Chorale.

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