‘Songs of Freedom’ concert Thursday to celebrate rich history of Black spirituals

William Harrison, music director at St. Scholastica Parish in Detroit and soon-to-be guest musician at Detroit’s Gesu Parish, will direct “Songs of Freedom: A Concert of Spirituals,” starting at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25. The virtual concert celebrating Black history will also include a reflection of the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. (Courtesy of William Harrison)

As Black History Month comes to an end, archdiocese to host reflection on musical tradition, communication method dating to time of slavery

DETROIT — As part of the final week of Black History Month, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Office of Cultural Ministries will host a virtual concert, “Songs of Freedom: a Concert of Spirituals,” on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 25. 

According to Vickie Figueroa, manager of the Office of Cultural Ministries and coordinator of Black Catholic Ministries with the Archdiocese of Detroit, the concert is intended to celebrate “the significance of negro spirituals in Black culture and Black music.” 

Figueroa said spirituals, which date back to times of slavery, are a necessary part of Black culture, influencing how the Black community communicates and celebrates to this day. 

“Spirituals were a way for slaves to communicate, to celebrate their successes, talk about their frustrations, talk about their beatings, talking about their kids who might have been sold off,” Figueroa said. “Spirituals evolved into a communications method so if the master or the overseers didn’t allow people to talk but allowed people to sing because singing helped people work faster, then singing became a way to communicate.”

The idea for the concert was conceived and will be executed by William Harrison, music minister at St. Scholastica Parish in Detroit. Harrison has an extensive musical background and is currently a doctoral student at Liberty University studying ethnomusicology, with a master’s in music. 

Harrison brought together a group of experienced Detroit musicians to form a quartet, and together they compiled a concert program full of Black spirituals in their musical repertoire. Harrison will direct, but will also provide vocal and piano accompaniment. The concert also includes special guest performer Carl Clendenning, the former music director at Gesu Parish in Detroit. 

“The spirituals are really near and dear to me, because as a musician and as an African-American musician especially, they really do lay the fabric for all of the music that we have as American people,” Harrison said. “It is truly the indigenous American music in its most visceral state. Without the spirituals, you wouldn’t have R&B, you wouldn’t have modern gospel, which all have an influence on contemporary Christian worship songs.” 

As a special addition to the concert, Harrison plans to use the spirituals to reflect on the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” written by Douglass himself. A narrator will read snippets of the autobiography as segues throughout the concert. 

Harrison said he chose the life and words of Douglass because Douglass’ life mirrors some of the race relation issues today. Douglass’ story can help tie together Black history and the present, Harrison said. 

“The spirituals really tell a story of a poignant past, but they also can shed light on a very hopeful future,” Harrison said. “The spirituals are wrapped up in so many different things and have an interesting history all of their own.”

Songs of Freedom: A Concert of Spirituals

What: A virtual concert hosted by the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Office of Cultural Ministries and Office of Black Catholic Ministries as part of Black History Month, intended to celebrate the history and impact of Black spirituals. The concert will include a reflection on the life of famous abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass. 

When: Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, 8:15-9:15 p.m. 

Where: Zoom. The link will be made available in the Archdiocese of Detroit Black Catholic Ministry Facebook group. No registration required.