Tag Archives: Underground Railroad


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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This Year’s Slave Songs

The choir is well into rehearsal for the 2016 season, while eagerly awaiting the return of our seasonal singers. The summer schedule is taking shape — see the new “2016 Schedule” tab at the top of this page.

This year’s repertoire includes some perennial favorites, some we haven’t sung in several years, and some we’ve never sung before. Here’s the list:

“Climbin’ Up the Mountain”

“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”

“O Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn”

“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”

The four songs above all draw on wondrous events from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The slaves marveled at these stories, and took lessons from them that the masters did not intend to teach. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,” they sang, “and why not every man?” Mary is told not to weep because “Pharaoh’s army got drownded” — and other oppressors will eventually get their comeuppance too.

“Live a Humble”

“Roll, Jordan, Roll”

When Jordan appears in the slave songs, it usually means either the Atlantic Ocean, with Africa on the other side, or the Ohio River, with freedom on the other side.

“You May Bury Me in the East”

“Sit Down, Servant, Sit Down”

A song from the Underground Railroad, where those who had always had to stand while the masters sat were finally encouraged to sit down and rest.

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”

The next three songs mark the first time the choir has featured a Christmas section. In these songs, the imagery comes from the New Testament. The promise of salvation was important to the slaves in ways the masters couldn’t know. For the fortunate it might come in this life before it came in the next.

“Po’ Li’l Jesus”

“Rise Up, Shepherd”

“Go Tell It on the Mountain”

“My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”

“Balm in Gilead”

“Mother, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?”

“Fare You Well”

“Done Made My Vow to the Lord”

Another song from the Underground Railroad. Slaves going on the journey vowed never to turn back. For most it was the first vow they’d ever taken of their own free will.

“Great Day”

A celebration of Emancipation, and thus one of the last spirituals. After slavery came to an end, no new slave songs were written, but the old ones have been traveling the world ever since.


If you’d like to arrange a presentation to your organization by Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir, let us know!

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Singing After Charleston

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

When plans were made for the Spirituals Choir to sing at the Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 21 — today — no one knew that we would be singing four days after a white supremacist gunman opened fire at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans in cold, cold blood.

Where to start, where to start?

If the gunman is “mentally ill,” his mental illness is shared, to some degree, by millions of Americans. They believe that African Americans are somehow less than other Americans — white Americans. That Africans were enslaved because they were not fit to be free.

The songs we sing say otherwise. As we sang today, I thought of something that Jim Thomas, founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project and director of the choir, likes to point out: that none of the slave songs speak of hatred or vengeance. Resistance and escape, yes, but not vengeance.

After crossing Vineyard Sound on the 7 a.m. ferry from Vineyard Haven, we boarded our chartered bus in Woods Hole.

We arrive in Canton.

We arrive in Canton.

By 9:15 we were in Canton.

We were welcomed by Martha Mezger, long a member of the choir, now a member of the Canton UU congregation.

The service focused on the slave songs, and the experience of those who sang them. The opening hymn was “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” which is in this year’s repertoire.

Singing these songs, it’s impossible not to think about what the original singers were thinking when they sang them.

The Rev. Beverly “Buffy” Boke read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Please, click the link above and read the whole thing.

Getting ready to sing. Jim's at the lower right.

Getting ready to sing. Jim’s at the lower right.

We sang.

“Wasn’t That a Wide River” — about the crossing of the Atlantic.

“We Shall Walk Through the Valley” — possibly the first peace song sung on this continent.

“I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” — about being so far behind on the long cotton rows that one couldn’t hear one’s fellows, or maybe about despair in general.

“As I Went Down in the Valley to Pray” — the slaves practiced their own religion, often with imagery from the Christian Bible, but they went out of the white folk’s sight to do it.

“Fare You Well” — in which slaves sold away from the plantation take leave of their fellows.

choir 2“Done Made My Vow to the Lord” — the vow of slaves preparing to leave on the Underground Railroad, that they will never turn back or betray their fellows.

“Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Coming” — in which the slaves prepare for emancipation.

“There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land” — the Promised Land in the slave songs is freedom.

“Great Day” — one of the last spirituals, about emancipation.

After the service we joined the congregation for a truly impressive potluck lunch in the parish hall. We had to leave all too early to catch our ferry home.

Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir will give a free presentation at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, June 24, at 5 p.m. Or come to our full-length performance next Saturday, June 27, at 7 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $15 at the door and benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project. Children under 12 get in free.

A window at the church

A window at the church



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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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June 29 Concert

Last Saturday, June 29, the Spirituals Choir returned to Katharine Cornell Theatre for a full-length performance. The program, “Songs from the Field: The Underground Railroad,” followed the experience of African slaves in the U.S. We opened with “Oh, Wasn’t That a Wide River?,” one of at least three slave  songs that commemorates the Middle Passage, the crossing of the Atlantic. (The others include “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and “Deep River.”)

The next section combined songs of hope and determination with songs that refer explicitly — though nearly always in code — to the Underground Railroad, the network that helped runaway slaves escape to the North from (approximately) 1830 to 1860. Most Americans learn “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” when we’re growing up, but we don’t learn that it was a slave song or that “Sweet Chariot” was a code-name of Harriet Tubman, probably the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Along with “Swing Low,” we sang “Done Made My Vow to the Lord,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Sit Down, Servant, Sit Down,” all of which relate to the experiences of runaway slaves on the “Railroad.”

Especially poignant is the haunting “Fare You Well,” which might have been sung by slaves leaving on the Railroad or by those parted from family and friends by the buying and selling of the plantation owners.

We finished with the jubilant “Great Day!,” which celebrates Emancipation: “This is the day of jubilee / The Lord has set his people free.”

As well as singing lead in his powerful baritone, director Jim Thomas explained the various ways the slaves used the songs, where some of the imagery came from, and what some of the lyrics meant to listeners who knew the code: “Hear the Angels Singing” seems to be entirely about heavenly choirs — until one realizes that Underground Railroad conductors were called “angels.”

After the singing, Jim invited questions and comments from the audience, and the audience obliged. (Among the audience, by the way, was Kate Taylor — who definitely knows some of these songs!)

The choir’s next full-length performance will be on Saturday, July 20, at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. We’ll be joined, as we were last year, by the celebrated organist Lavert Stuart. On July 21, we’ll be part of the morning service at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Vineyard Haven.

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Upcoming Concert

20130629 poster lo-res

Tickets may be obtained online at ticketsmv.com, or by calling Jim Thomas at 703-407-1207. They should also be available at the door.

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This season the Martha’s Vineyard Spirituals Choir is singing several spirituals about Emancipation, like “Oh Freedom” and “Free at Last,” and others about the Underground Railroad, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Hear the Angels Singing.”

Yearning for freedom and a better life comes through so clearly in many spirituals. Did you know that in the antebellum U.S. South the slaves’ yearning for freedom was considered a disease?

At rehearsal tonight, director Jim Thomas told us about “drapetomania.”

Drapetomania, as described by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851), was the “mental illness” that supposedly caused black slaves to try to escape. The word comes from the Greek drapetes (a runaway slave) and mania (madness). Drapetomania, wrote Dr. Cartwright, was “much more curable” than other forms of “mental alienation.” Slaves, he advised, should be treated like children and forced to submit to adult (white) authority. Treating them as equals only encouraged the disease. Slaves should be treated kindly, but if symptoms of drapetomania surfaced nevertheless “whipping the devil out of them” was advised.

Free at last, free at last
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last



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