HUNTSVILLE, Alabama - If you attend the Festival of Spirituals on Feb. 26 at the Von Braun Center’s Mark C. Smith Concert Hall, prepare to receive a powerful history lesson. Oakwood University is hosting the festival at which choirs from nine colleges and universities in three states will share music that marks the suffering blacks endured under slavery but that also provides hope for a better world.
The music “is a spiritual thing that goes back to the Negro experience,” said Dr. Roy Malcolm, a professor of education at Oakwood University and the coordinator of the festival. “We’re not celebrating the pain but experiencing what we’ve gotten from the freedom. We focus on the blessings that the freedom has brought us.”
Oakwood sponsors the festival every other year as a means of preserving the spiritual as an important art form, Malcolm said. Another reason is to provide a platform for Historically Black Colleges and Universities to work together.
“It keeps a friendship, a fellowship with the HBCUs,” Malcolm said.
The festival is a continuation of something Dr. Richard Arrington began back in the 1970s when he served as executive director of Alabama Center for Higher Education, an organization that supported Alabama’s HCBUs. The choirs from those schools would perform at the center’s annual Black History Month program.
After Arrington became mayor of Birmingham, the yearly musical gathering ended. Malcolm resurrected the idea, however, for one of the events to celebrate Oakwood’s 100th anniversary in 1996. Another six-year hiatus ensued until Malcolm again led the effort to bring back the festival in 2002.
Since that time, the festival has been biannual, taking place in February as a Black History Month event. People come from around the region just for the program. In fact, the festival has gotten too big to be held in the Oakwood University campus church, as it once was, Malcolm said.
“It has become a very big thing in the city,” he said.
In addition to Oakwood’s choir, participating choirs this year will be from Alabama A&M University, Alabama State University, Miles College, Clark Atlanta University, Stillman College, Talladega College, Tuskegee University and a gospel choir from the University of Alabama.
The program will begin with a short devotional led by the choir from First Seventh Day Adventist Church and Excelsia Choir, a diverse group of choir members from various churches, Talcum said.
Following the devotional, all the choirs – some 500 voices – will lead the audience in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the black national anthem. Then each choir will take the stage to sing two songs.
“We want to make sure it is not a competition; it’s not even a concert.” Malcolm said. “It’s a celebration of liberty.”
About midway through the two-hour program, the organizing committee will recognize individuals who have made what Malcolm called “a significant contribution to the arts.” Those to be honored include:
• Cleveland and Antoinette Wilson, former teachers at the Academy for Academics and Arts and directors of the First Seventh Day Adventist Church’s inspirational choir
• Julie Moore Foster, a professional singer and assistant professor of music at Oakwood who has coached several students who have received local and national awards
• Dr. Lloyd Mallory, the former director of the Oakwood choir and the Aeolians, Oakwood’s showcase choir
• Dr. Martin Van Sherill, a Huntsville pediatrician and the owner of the Imhotep Art Gallery
• Allison Dillon-Jauken, executive director of the Arts Council
• The six members of the band Committed, which won NBC’s “The Sing Off” in 2010
While the members of Committed, all Oakwood University graduates, are not officially on the program, they may surprise the audience with a musical thank you when they receive their honor, Malcolm said.
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