One hundred twenty-three members of the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir are filing onto the stage, practicing the correct line-up on the bleachers. It’s the dress rehearsal for the choir’s 40th anniversary concert at the Gertrude Ford Center in Oxford the same night.
In the fall of 1974, there were only 355 African American students at Ole Miss, making up just 4.5 percent of the total student body. That’s when a small group decided to found the Black Student Union Choir.
“We were like a family. We were drawn together by our love of gospel music, also, of course, our ethnicity," says Edwin Smith who joined three years after inception. Now a communications specialist, the 56-year old never thought the group would survive that long.
“Who knew that when we were doing that back then that 40 years later the choir would still be in existence and have accomplished so many phenomenal things.”
Those phenomenal things are a recording deal the choir landed with Malaco Records in Jackson in 1999. Two years later, the resulting CD,“Send Up the Praise,” was nominated for a Grammy.
But there was more than the outward success. To this day, choir practice remains a sort of refuge. Journalism major Justavian Tillman is the choir’s current president.
“Being an African American here on campus at a predominantly white institution – just to be able to go into an atmosphere of the same color as I am… We are not a minority when we are in the choir," Tillman says.
25-year-old Gloria Howell was co-adviser to the choir until last year while a graduate student at Ole Miss. Now studying for a Ph.D. in Higher Ed Student Affairs at Indiana University she says the choir has always been a home for this marginalized group on campus: “We bring with us so many issues. Whether it be growing up in a single-parent home, or living with a grandmother, or not being able to have financial aid, not knowing if I’m gonna stay in school next semester, GPA being low, things like that.”
The choir serves as a quiet recruiting tool in the black community. But maybe just as importantly, Howell says, it has also been keeping African-American students on campus.
“If they hadn’t started choir in their first semester they probably would have been gone by the middle of the second semester," Howell says. "It was a support system but along with that support came accountability.”
When Norman Seawright Jr. came to campus in 1977 it was originally on a football scholarship as a wide receiver for the Rebels. Barely a year later, he also became the choir director. Today, the 55-year old is a commercial pilot based in Greenville, Indiana, who still sings – sometimes above the clouds.
“I cannot tell you how wonderful it was! It was great to be around people who enjoyed singing gospel music, enjoyed trying to live a Christian or righteous life and had a great time with it.”
In 1991, the choir took an important symbolic step and changed its name from Black Student Union Gospel Choir to University of Mississippi Gospel Choir. Val Beasley-Ross, now the university’s Associate Dean of Students, was then the choir’s faculty adviser.
“I remember talking with the students about actually doing that and I shared with them, ‘You know, you are representing the university. You are a recruiting tool.’ I think they were a major recruiting tool at that time. ‘Why not embrace the university’s name?’
But despite the new inclusive name, the choir remained largely an African-American institution, never exceeding just a handful on non-black members. Today, its racial makeup is once again 100 percent African American. Over the years, the music style has changed. The most noticeable is the inclusion of a cappella spirituals – essentially old slave music.
Edwin Smith loves the a cappella singing. But in the mid-70s when he was a member it would have been unthinkable, he says, for the choir to perform that kind of arrangement.
“There was a stigma you know that dated back to slavery," Smith explains. "We didn’t want to sing songs that connected or inferred in any type or way that heritage. I think that things have changed now. There’s a tendency to say, ‘Look where we have come from!’ But back then, we weren’t far enough away from that past.”
One thing all former members agreed upon is that they really miss being part of the choir, several calling it the best time of their lives.