Negro Spirituals Oral Histories to Mills and Libraries

The Negro Spirituals folk songs are America's oldest form of original music. It is not known when African-American slaves began creating and singing folk Spirituals. The Black minister, Wyatt Tee Walker, writes, "The best estimate of the earliest appearances of the Spirituals, as we know it, is 1760." It is believed that the African-American slaves began singing and creating this early American folk music even before that date, given the trying challenges of their lives in slavery, the oral traditions, musical gifts, customs of singing about life events, and the skills at masking feelings in songs that the slaves brought from African when they were captured.

After the 350-years from their inception, Black Spirituals were unanimously accorded the official standing of National Treasure on February 17, 2007 by the 110th United State Congress, which adopted a resolution that "the first expression of a unique American music was created by enslaved African-Americans." Folk Spirituals such as Go Down, Moses; Go Tell It on the Mountain; He's Got the Whole World in His Hand; and When the Saints Go March'in were recognized as an important contribution to American music.

Almost lost to humanity after the Civil War, these songs were miraculously saved. Since 1871, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers began singing them on national and international stages to paying audiences, considerable efforts have gone into preserving this heritage.

Friends of Negro Spirituals is a participant in that continuing endeavor. A Bay Area leader in preserving the historic folk Spirituals through educating the public, Friends of Negro Spirituals will celebrate the release of its Negro Spirituals Oral History DVDs and transcripts to the public on Sunday, March 30, 2008, 3 PM, at Mills College in Lisser Hall, 5000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, CA. The project, called In Our Own Words–The Negro Spirituals Heritage Keepers, consists of ten fifty-minute DVDs and transcripts, each featuring an interview with a Negro Spirituals Heritage Keeper discussing their memories of learning about the slavery-born songs and ways/he has been keeping them alive in Oakland-area communities. The DVDs and transcripts, Oakland's first, will be released to Mills College Library; the Oakland Main Library's History Room, and the African American Museum and Library in Oakland and will be available to the public.

Presented in partnership with Mills College, the community celebration will include old- time community and contemporary choral Negro Spirituals singing, an African dance performance, and a compilation DVD, all hosted by the internationally renowned story teller, Diane Ferlatte.

The public is invited to the free, wheel-chair accessible event. Call Sam Edwards or Lyvonne Chrisman at (510) 869-4359 or contact either at for further information.

Participants in the Negro Spirituals Oral History Project are: William "Bill" Bell, a jazz pianist known as The Jazz Professor and the conductor of The Oakland Bay Area Community Chorus; Lyvonne Chrisman, Vice-President and co-founder of Friends of Negro Spirituals; Marcella Conley, retired college professor; Dr. Helen Dilworth, soprano and a Professor of Music at San Francisco City College; Doug Edwards, jazz programmer and producer, Pacifica radio station KPFA, 94.1, FM, Berkeley; Sam Edwards, President and co-founder of Friends of Negro Spirituals; Jacqueline Hairston, pianist, composer, Spirituals arranger, and educator; Autris Paige, baritone and professional narrator; Linda Tillery, Cultural Historian and Artistic Director of Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir; Cleophas Williams, retired ILWU President; and his wife, Mrs. Sadie Williams.

Funding for the project was provided by the City of Oakland's Cultural Funding Program, The Living Cultures Grants Program which is a program of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts in partnership with the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation, and members and friends of Friends of Negro Spirituals.

Friends of Negro Spirituals is located in Oakland, CA. We are a 510 (c) (3) organization with goals of the study of the history of African American born Slavery music, Negro Spirituals.

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