Troubadours for Black History

By Scott, Sara | The New Crisis, May/June 2000 | Go to article overview

Troubadours for Black History


Scott, Sara, The New Crisis


CULTURE/SOCIETY

The high school in the northern, bluecollar city of Jackson, MI, is a sprawling four-story Gothic built in 1928. Its grooved steps witness the passage of thousands of rushing teenagers. In the once elaborate, now faded, auditorium, a teacher and a small group of students formed a singing group in February 1994. Their message was to be one of racial unity and black history.

"It was supposed to be a simple, onetime performance," said Shirley Pitts, the group's founder and adviser. "But, it was so well received and powerful, we kept it going."

Over the last six years, the Jackson High School Black History Tour Group has traveled to more than 100 Michigan schools in an effort to break down racial barriers and educate the public on the achievements of black people. Its hourlong program includes a repertoire of songs, dramatic readings and skits. One reenacts the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. Readings come from such texts as the August 28, 1963, address by Dr. Martin King, Jr., on the Capitol Mall, and the speeches and writings of abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.

The Black History Tour Group composes many of its songs on themes of racial unity and social inclusion; lifestyle messages eschewing drugs, gang affiliation, and violence also get an airing. The group's gospel paean "We Won't Give Up," plays on its website at http:/thejhsblackhistorytourgroup.iuma.com. At press time, a group composition celebrating the NAACP was scheduled to be added.

The Tour Group often visits predominantly white schools. Pitts believes this is a key part of the program. "All children need diversity," she explained. "It's especially important in schools which are all white. Sometimes when we walk in, it's obvious they haven't been exposed to a lot of different cultures."

The Tour Group's efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 1997 they sang by invitation on the floor of the Michigan Senate in Lansing. Their rousing performance brought the roomful of suited senators to their feet, where they hand-jived and sang along. Twice the Tour Group has appeared for Michigan governor John Engler at the governor's mansion.

Jackson's public school superintendent, Daniel Evans, gives the group high marks. "They truly are ambassadors for the community of Jackson. Their efforts have been recognized across the state and country," he said. The crowning achievement came in 1998 with an appearance at the White House during Black History Month. The group chartered a bus and made the 13-hour trek to Washington, D.C. They performed in the East Room in front of a 200-year-old portrait of George Washington.

"It was the most incredible experience," recalled Catherine Williams, 18, a senior at Jackson High School. "To be from little old Jackson and to receive that kind of recognition was unbelievable."

Most of these children were born and raised in Jackson-a city of 35,000 people about 60 miles west of Detroit-and have strong ties to one of several community churches. Pitts calls them her "church kids." It means that the young people grew up singing and believe strongly in the values drummed into them by their authority figures.

At least they must appear to do so, or lose the enriching opportunity of performing and traveling. Pitts said, "I tell them, `You are a role model and you have to live up to that. When we travel to all these different schools, these children, especially the young ones, look up to you.' " A step off the hard line, such as the conceiving a child out-of-wedlock, can result in expulsion from the group, for the girl, anyway. ". . . [S]omeone who is visibly pregnant going on tour with us . . . is not the right message we want to send," Pitts said.

The students who stay with the Black History Tour Group accept the strict code of conduct that comes with the territory. "I understand," explained Williams, a four-year member of the group. …

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