Commemorating History Through Music

by Sara Browning
Photography by Elijah Sansom

Transcending racial and social boundaries, the Heritage Ensemble brings the rich musical literature of the African-American experience to people of all cultures.

It’s a performance unlike any other, entwining African-American history with musical entertainment for the enjoyment and cultural enrichment of the community. Spirituals, blues, ragtime, hollers and work songs paint a vivid picture of the trials confronted and overcome by African Americans. From the harsh realities of slavery to the stark challenges of the civil rights movement to the ongoing barriers to sustained progress, the Negro spiritual has served as an undeniable foundation for the music of the Heritage Ensemble.

Nearly a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans faced the grim reality of segregation, oppression and the “separate but equal” doctrine, which barred them from classrooms, theaters and train cars; restricted voting rights; and cut off many of the opportunities afforded their Caucasian counterparts. The Heritage Ensemble reflects gratitude for the years of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience of the civil rights movement, led by brave men and women like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X—who dedicated their lives to the fight for equality and unconditional acceptance.

“Our diverse musical literature is music grown out of the Negro spiritual, music that inspired and upheld a people who marched for civil rights, who overcame a period of slavery,” says Sharon Samuels Reed, artistic director and founder of the Heritage Ensemble. “Whether through our singing or the message in our music, our mission is to tear down walls and build bridges between all people.”

A Lifetime Commitment
And Reed’s own experiences growing up have fueled her personal passion for this mission. Hailing from Paris, Texas, she graduated high school just a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the final two years of her high-school career were marked by the challenges of forced integration. But music was her saving grace.

“During the turmoil of the civil rights movement, my musical involvement sustained me,” she recalls. “From the time I was eight years old, I have been involved with studying and/or teaching music. Music upheld me and gave me what I needed… not just to survive, but to thrive.” During her high school and undergraduate experience, Reed was groomed to become an opera singer, but she found an interest in strengthening her community taking precedence. “I wanted to do something that would help make the world a better place.”

Reed pledged to Delta Sigma Delta Sorority in 1969, and served as president of the Peoria Alumnae Chapter for four years; today, she is vice president. From 1972 to 1994, she taught in the District 150 school system, before being recruited as chairperson of cultural studies and director of choirs for Pekin Community High School. “This was a huge ‘first’ for me. I was the first African-American educator in that community. It was during this time that I clearly understood what God had prepared me for while growing up in Texas.”

In 2001, District 150 recruited Reed for a second time, and she spent several years as its director of fine arts, retiring from this position in 2008. She remains coordinator of the district’s Arts Integration Program, which focuses on teaching math, science and reading through the lens of the fine arts, as well as the Step Up Program, helping students make a smooth transition to middle school.

“Serving my community… has become a lifetime commitment,” says Reed. “The Heritage Ensemble is just another step for me in an effort to level the playing field and provide equal access to success through the fine arts.”

Birth of an Ensemble
Prior to the Ensemble’s formation, Reed was asked to recruit singers for an Opera Illinois production of Porgy & Bess, which details the trials of African-American life in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. She called upon a core group who had performed together for more than a decade, and expanded into the larger community to make up the chorus.

“During rehearsals… Dr. Fiora Contino, the artistic director of Opera Illinois, asked me to formalize the group,” Reed says. “The impression we made on her during Porgy & Bess, the passion with which we rehearsed, and the energy with which we had researched our rich heritage in preparation for this opera was something our community needed. Although I was a busy wife and mother to three active children, as well as a choir director, Fiora helped me understand that it’s not a matter of having time; it’s a matter of doing what the community needs me to do.”

And so, on August 19, 1999, in the Dingledine Music Center on Bradley University’s campus, the Heritage Ensemble was born. Nearly a decade later, in 2008, the Youth Heritage Ensemble was founded to mentor young people in grades six to 12.

“This group fills a cultural void in the community,” says Reed. “We are reliving the experiences of the people who conceived the music as we perform it. Our job is to communicate these experiences through the singing of the Negro spiritual. We have been called the authentic voice of the Negro spiritual.”

Experiencing Family
No ordinary singing group, the Heritage Ensemble is a unique tapestry of about 35 members from a variety of professions. Community activists, attorneys, business managers, artists, homemakers and music educators all come together to create a unique sound rooted in the pride of African-American culture and a diversity that transcends the barriers of age, race and geography.

“For me, it’s more than teaching and performing music,” Reed affirms. “We’re a family, and you cannot experience the music without experiencing family. The glue that holds our family together is our deep pride in who we are as individuals, how we love as a family and how we want to spread this message to others.”

During each Tuesday night rehearsal, the members pray for one another and celebrate what has been achieved in the community. “We believe in collective prayer and collective celebration, which really motivate us as a group. We may arrive at rehearsal tired from the busy week, but we leave pumped and ready to go!”

Impacting the Community
One of the Heritage Ensemble’s largest and most popular events takes place in June at Illinois Central College’s Performing Arts Center in East Peoria. Juneteenth: An American Celebration, commemorates Juneteenth, the holiday marking the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the abolition of slavery in Texas. (Although President Lincoln issued the proclamation in 1862, Texas did not heed its requirements until 1865, after the Civil War, when federal troops forced it to comply.) This year’s performance will take place on June 14, 2014.

The group’s other signature concert will be held on January 18th. Singing the Dream is a choral celebration honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The Ensemble has also performed with Opera Illinois and the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, and at the Chicago Gospel Fest, while Reed has served as a guest conductor at ICC’s concert to honor the military and their families.

In 2003, the Heritage Ensemble took center stage at world-famous Carnegie Hall for the New York premiere of Psalm 150, under the leadership of conductor and composer John Rutter, as well as Feel the Spirit, a cycle of Negro spirituals. “Absolutely phenomenal!” is how Reed describes the experience. “The opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall was a dream come true. [It] was an opportunity to join other choirs in a celebration of this poignant music. Our music was conceived by the Negro slave and serves as the root of all of America’s music. This is America’s music.”

Home to Texas
Perhaps even more special, Reed had the opportunity in 2006 to take the Heritage Ensemble to her childhood home in Paris, Texas, for a weekend performance. That Sunday morning, Reed’s father, a noted gospel singer who had suffered a stroke, sang with the group. “It was his last public performance with us before he suffered a second stroke.”

Reed calls the Texas performances “emotionally gratifying.” “I was able to speak at the First United Methodist Church—a place I would never have been welcomed when I graduated from high school in 1968. My high school choir director was able to drive down to that concert and really see how music has impacted my life and the lives of others. He was very proud!”

Most certainly, the music and legacy of this renowned singing group will stand the test of time. “People have come up to me with tears in their eyes following our performances and tried to explain what they feel, and they can’t do it,” says Reed. “There are no words to describe the deep-seated emotions our performances stir up. It’s something that must be experienced.

“We are not just creating music; we are sharing everything about our history and heritage that has molded us into who we are as African Americans. This history has been a foundation for all Americans! Every performance is an experience to be remembered.” a&s

The Heritage Ensemble’s Singing the Dream concert, a choral celebration honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will take place on January 18th at the ICC Performing Arts Center in East Peoria. Call (309) 694-5136 or visit artsaticc.com for tickets. For more information on the Heritage Ensemble and Youth Heritage Ensemble, visit heritageensemble.com.

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