Tag Archives: Juneteenth

A Surprise Guest in Edgartown

Our presentation at the Edgartown library this past Saturday went very well. Both the library and its sunny, spacious program room were new when we sang there last year. The acoustics were as wonderful as we remembered, and so was the hospitality. After the presentation choir and audience chatted over lemonade and coffee, strawberries, chocolate cake, and cookies.

At some point I noticed a mature gentleman moving about the room taking pictures.The zoom-equipped camera around his neck identified him as a photographer — not for him the smartphones or point-and-shoots of most of us. During the Q&A, he identified himself as Daniel Williams. For 30 years he has been documenting Emancipation celebrations, not only in the United States but abroad as well. A book is in the works.

Everyone knows about the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which freed the slaves in the rebelling Southern states — but not those in slaveholding states that had never left the Union, and not those in the parts of the Confederacy that were by then under Union control.

Emancipation came gradually: the Wikipedia article on the subject notes that “Slaves in the District of Columbia were freed on April 16, 1862,” and on June 19 Congress passed legislation abolishing slavery in current and future U.S. territories. For various reasons, news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not reach Texas until mid-June of 1865, an occasion that is now widely celebrated as Juneteenth. Legal slavery did not officially end in the U.S. until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

So there are several emancipation milestones to celebrate. Two songs in the Spirituals Choir’s 2017 celebrate Emancipation: “Rise! Shine! For the Light Is a-Coming” and “Great Day.”

It was a thrill to meet Mr. Williams and learn of his work, and needless to say, we look forward to hearing more.

Accompanist Phil Dietterich on the left, director Jim Thomas in blue

Some of the choir




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Our Busy Week

This is a busy week for Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir!

Last Saturday we sang at the NAACP’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

Tight quarters in the choir loft at First Baptist Church

Tight quarters in the choir loft at First Baptist Church

Jim explains the significance of the songs.

Jim explains the significance of the songs.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, June 25, at 6:30 p.m., we’ll make our West Tisbury library debut. The expanded and renovated library now has a beautiful new performance space. The program is free and audience members are encouraged to comment and ask questions after the program.

On Saturday, we perform the first of two benefits for the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. This one is at Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. It starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 at the door. Percussionist Chris Seidel will be joining us on snare drum for our finale, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The second benefit will be at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, on Saturday, July 19.

2014 KC card

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Juneteenth 2014

This Saturday, June 21, Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir will take part in the annual Juneteenth celebration sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP. The event begins at 1 p.m. at the First Baptist Church, corner of Spring and William Streets, Vineyard Haven. The choir’s presentation is scheduled to start at 2:30.

The celebration also includes an intergenerational panel discussion on “Speaking Truth to Power” and a potluck supper in the parish hall next door. Bring a dish to share or a $5 donation. (The food last year was scrumptious.)

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Legally the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863. But it freed only the slaves in the rebellious states, and made exceptions for some in the slaveholding states that had remained in the Union. Its moral force was great, however, though it could only be implemented through military victory. The Civil War ended with the Confederacy’s surrender on April 9, 1865, but it wasn’t till June 19 that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that the war was over and all slaves were free.

Word reached the various towns and plantations on different days. Slaves weren’t always aware of the exact calendar date, but everyone knew it was the middle of June. Hence the end of slavery has been celebrated ever since as “Juneteenth.”

No new spirituals have appeared since the end of slavery. Once they were free, the former slaves no longer needed to communicate in secret. The last authentic spirituals celebrate emancipation: “Great Day,” “Free at Last,” and “Oh Freedom over Me.”

Next year, 2015, will mark the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth. For more about Juneteenth and its celebrations, check out this website.

Hope to see you on Saturday!

Jim Thomas (at left) and some of the choir at last year's Juneteenth celebration

Jim Thomas (at left) and some of the choir at last year’s Juneteenth celebration

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On Saturday, June 22, the Spirituals Choir sang at the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP’s Juneteenth celebration, held at the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven.

Gathering before the event. From left: Director Jim, Betsy, Heather, Thelma, Susie (whose face you can't see), and Bob (represented by his cool shirt sleeve).

Gathering before the event. From left: Director Jim, Betsy, Heather, Thelma, Susie (whose face you can’t see), and Bob (represented by his cool shirt sleeve).

In the middle of June 1865, the word finally got to Texas that the Civil War was over and the slaves were free. The slaves had been officially free since January 1, 1863, but word didn’t always travel fast in those days. Some people, it seems, didn’t want the word to get through at all.

According to the history books, Major General George Granger made the announcement in Galveston on June 19, but people got the word at different times and not everyone had a calendar handy, so the date has come down to us as Juneteenth. For more about the history, check out this site.

Jim Thomas, director of the Spirituals Choir and founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project (which the choir is part of), talked about the history and introduced each of the songs.

We sang “You May Bury Me in the East” in memory of Natalie Dickerson, former president of the M.V. NAACP and a singer with the choir in its early years, who passed in May.

Natalie was also present in an interview she did with Ann Bassett, host of the Vineyard View show on MVTV. Natalie herself hosted two MVTV shows, Pathway to Your Health and Pathway to Your Success.

20130629 poster lo-res

After the program we all adjourned to the parish house for a potluck feast.

Next Saturday we’ll be performing at Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven: Show time is 7:30, June 29; tickets are $15 (to benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project) and can be purchased at the door.

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