Monthly Archives: July 2014

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.



Filed under Jim Thomas, MV Spirituals Choir, slavery

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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