Upcoming reunion concert underlines the ‘united front and resilience’ provided in colored school choirs

During the era of segregation, choirs and choruses offered both safe havens and inspiration. And a bright future that society tried to deny, but couldn’t. A March 12 concert at Israel Metropolitan CME Church will highlight that.
Alumni from former black schools in Greenville County are coming together for a very special concert at Israel Metropolitan CME Church March 12th
Published: Feb. 16, 2023 at 9:35 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - Music is an integral part of Black life. In fact, historians say it’s been that way for centuries influencing both the young and old. Particularly during the era of segregation within colored schools, choirs and choruses provided both safe havens and inspiration. And there’s a concert in the works to highlight to results.

Helen Irby knows first-hand that music empowers.

“That is my goal,” Irby said. “My faith and music have been my backbone.”

She attended Sterling High School (1896 – 1970) and later Washington High School (1962 – 1970), two of five colored high schools in Greenville County where students say racism and societal odds tried to permeate their walls.

“We had to pay full price for used books,” Irby said. “And we didn’t always have many supplies. I remember at Washington High School, they had one microscope for an entire science class. One microscope.”

Separate and unequal treatment in a state that historians say considered education for Blacks as “unimportant.” Additionally, the state also provided little education for teens past the 10th grade and the unprovoked racial slurs and attacks were sometimes rampant outdoors.

“It was horrendous,” said Sylvia Cureton-Brown, Washington High School graduate. “I don’t know why. Maybe it was the dark hue of our skin.”

“It restricted us, and it denied us of a lot of things,” added Grady Butler, Sterling High School graduate.

South Carolina was also the last state to desegregate its public school system, and until that day many Black youth found solace and power in their school choirs and choruses.

“Courage, motivation, it gave us strength,” Irby said. “It gave us things to look forward to in the future.”

A bright future that society tried to deny but couldn’t. Irby and Cureton-Brown have over six decades of experience in education, and Grady even sang for five weeks at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

“I had opportunities – and to be on that big stage,” Grady said.

Stories heard often by Tevin Smith a classically trained tenor and music teacher who learned piano as a kid from Sterling High alum, Christine Burton-Wardlaw, before earning his degree at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“Music is essential to the soul,” Smith said. “Music is a universal language that opens the doors. People who are in the medical field and science have seen that when they started to read music -- it illuminated the brain. There’s studies that show that.”

Backed science that opened the doors for countless in colored schools, which leads us a rehearsal of sopranos, altos and tenors at Israel Metropolitan CME Church in Greenville. They’re preparing for a March 12 concert that reintroduces choral music to the county. Music that spawned resilience that some people call a lost style.

“We were a united front,” Cureton-Brown said.

“This is the music that built the resilience of our lives,” Smith added. “It allowed us to express who we are, and it’s a lost art in our African American community. A lot of us in Greenville especially, don’t sing choral music.”

On March 12 at 3 p.m. approximately 100 alum will reunite to sing choral anthems during a concert at Israel Metropolitan Church. Graduates will also be recognized and they’re encouraging the public to come regardless of one’s race, identity or affiliation.

“Hopefully this chorus will have a future, by being invited to other churches and places to perform,” Irby said.

Israel Metropolitan CME Church is located at 307 N. Calhoun Street, Greenville, SC 29601