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!

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under 1854, slavery, spirituals

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Jim Thomas, MV Spirituals Choir

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.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under slavery

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.

4 Comments

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Singing the History

Most of the singers in the Spirituals Choir are white. I’m one of them. People sometimes remark on this, and I’d bet good money that many more notice but are too nervous to say anything out loud.

When asked, and sometimes even when not asked, why I sing in the choir, I say that the songs are beautiful and moving and that by singing them I can begin to feel my way into the lives of those who created them. No, I will never understand what it’s like to be totally at the mercy of another person, to be sold away from family and friends, to take the huge risk of boarding the Underground Railroad and beginning the long trek north.

But the spirituals make those experiences real to me in a new way. It goes deeper than history books, deeper even than the first-person accounts by enslaved people who managed not only to escape but to get their stories into print, People like Frederick Douglass; Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs), author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Solomon Northrup, whose Twelve Years a Slave was adapted into a movie some 160 years after its publication; and all the men and women whose narratives were collected by the Federal Writers Project during the New Deal.

It’s a little like being in a play. In rehearsals you work your way into the character, then in performance you are that character for an hour or two. When you go back to being yourself, traces of the character often remain in your memory and maybe even in your heart.

So at the beginning of the very long Fourth of July weekend Margaret Jordan’s Washington Post op-ed caught my eye: “Too Many Americans Still Don’t See Black History as Their Own.” Jordan, a D.C. native, writes about the long-vanished family history she sees as she walks around the city. A member of the Montpelier Foundation, she writes about a new exhibition at Montpelier, James Madison’s home, “which tells the story of what life was like as a slave on the plantation of our fourth president.” And she writes this:

In the retelling of U.S. history, there is an incomplete and frequently inaccurate story of African American history. At best, it has been the auxiliary exhibit, with slavery a disconnected footnote in the larger tome of our nation’s story. Descendants such as me, who were lucky to grow up knowing the names of their ancestors, know these stories. But most Americans have not been taught to see and embrace African American history as part of their history as Americans. Indeed, in the telling of American history, we have failed to fully grapple with the reality of slavery and its lasting hold on society. This has consequences.

That’s it. That’s why I sing the spirituals and why I believe Americans of all colors and ethnicities can and should embrace them as part of our history, difficult as it can be. In self-defense the mind recoils from thinking too hard about slavery, like the finger recoils from a hot burner. But the spirituals offer a way into the history, and a way of integrating slavery into the history of the nation.

* * * * *

The Spirituals Choir’s annual full-length presentation at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, will take place on Saturday, July 22, at 7:30. Most of our performances, at libraries, schools, and houses of worship, are free. The tickets for the Union Chapel presentation are $15 and support the work of the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. (Children under 12 get in free.) Lavert Stuart will once again be our guest organist.

 

3 Comments

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, slavery, spirituals

Two Sides of July Fourth

On July 5, 1852, abolitionist, activist, and former slave Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass died in 1895, but his speech lives on. On Martha’s Vineyard there are usually two community readings of the speech each year. One takes place at the Federated Church in Edgartown on July 3, the other at the Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs on the 4th.

This was my second year reading at the Inkwell. That’s us, this year’s readers, in the photo. I’m kneeling in front with the purple hat mostly covering my face. Gail, also part of the Spirituals Choir, is second from right in the front row.

I can’t speak or listen to Douglass’s words without hearing in my mind the slave songs we sing in the Spirituals Choir. This year what I heard most vividly was Douglass’s evocation of the “human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn!”

I can’t stop thinking of “that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn.” One of the songs in our repertoire this summer is “Mother, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?” In it a girl — I’m sure it’s a girl — sings that line, and the choir answers: “Yes, yes, yes . . . O watch and pray!” Then the girl sings “Gwine to sell us down in Georgia?” And again the answer is “Yes, yes, yes . . .”

The way Dr. Thelma Johnson, member of the Spirituals Choir, sings those lines will break your heart.

So do Frederick Douglass’s passionate words, evoking the slave who can’t celebrate liberty on the Fourth of July because he is not free.

The slave songs keep the slaves’ experiences alive. That’s why I sing them. Frederick Douglass’s words do likewise. That’s why we read them every year on the Fourth of July.

 

1 Comment

Filed under slavery, spirituals