Tag Archives: Grace Church


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 priest 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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Welcome @ Grace

“We’re gonna sit at the welcome table,” sang the slaves, who weren’t welcome at any plantation’s welcome table — unless, of course, they were serving, in which case sitting was out of the question.

Grace Church, Vineyard Haven

Grace Church, Vineyard Haven

For its first two rehearsals, the Spirituals Choir was welcomed to the parish hall of Trinity United Methodist Church in the Campground. This week we rehearsed at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven.

Rain drizzled, the sky was overcast, but the sanctuary glowed with light through the stained-glass windows as we sang.

“Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” “Rockin’ Jerusalem,” “In Bright Mansions” . . .

“Done Made My Vow,” explained director Jim Thomas, founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project, is about the vow made by slaves before they escaped on the Underground Railroad.

Done made my vow to the Lord
And I never will turn back
I will go, I shall go, to see what the end will be

It might be the first vow a slave had ever made. Only free people can make and keep vows.

Jim directs the sopranos and the tenors.

Jim directs the sopranos and the tenors.

The passion is the most important thing, says Jim. After a run-through of “Where Will I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds,” he looked us over and said maybe one or two of us were singing like we wanted to hear the Lord’s answer. We sang it again. “That’s better,” he said. “I’m beginning to believe you.”

Two more performances were announced: Sunday, June 15, at the Chilmark Community Church; and Wednesday, June 25, at the spanking-new West Tisbury library. (See the tab at the top of this page for the schedule so far.)



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Filed under Jim Thomas, MV Spirituals Choir, spirituals