brittney lohmiller | The Natchez Democrat Twelve-year-old Zemirah Singleton sings Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” during Southern Road to Freedom.
brittney lohmiller | The Natchez Democrat
Twelve-year-old Zemirah Singleton sings Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” during Southern Road to Freedom.

Choir sings stories on Southern Road to Freedom

Published 12:05am Wednesday, March 26, 2014

NATCHEZ — Sometimes, the best way to tell a story is to sing.

For the past 24 years, the Southern Road to Freedom Choir has chosen the medium of song to tell the story of the black experience in Natchez.

The choir tells the story of the area’s black residents, starting with the struggle of slavery but including the triumph of ordinary people who were able to do extraordinary things during and after the Civil War and into the 20th century.

In an open message from the choir shared with all attendees, the participants said their goal is to speak, “frankly and proudly, and to sing joyfully of the achievements of African-Americans in Natchez, from very bad times to better times, as we traveled on the road to freedom.”

“For me, and I think the other choir members, it’s really an honor to present these stories,” choir president Lisa Johnson said. “You feel connected to it as you get into the research (of people’s lives) and you learn about it.”

Dressed in traditional African garb, the choir members step forward between such songs as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and present vignettes from the lives of notable black Natchezians.

Those stories include the lives of August and Sarah Mazique, former slaves who were so successful as planters their children were able to purchase the plantation at which they had been enslaved, and Robert Wood, who was elected Natchez’s first black mayor in the early 1870s and later served as Adams County sheriff.

Others mentioned include Prince Ibrahima, friends Jane Johnson and Sarah Sims, the famous singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and the victims of the Rhythm Night Club fire.

Religion was an incredibly important part of the historic black experience, program narrator Charles Harris said.

“Sunday services were the only time they could freely express their feelings,” he said.

The discussion of religion in the program includes the histories of two of Natchez’s historic black churches, Holy Family Catholic Church and Rose Hill Baptist Church.

Musician and show director Alvin Shelby said the choir has made an effort to get more young people to embrace performing in the Southern Road to Freedom, something that was successful this year with the inclusion of several younger performers.

“We wanted to bring them in so they could come in and really take ownership of the show,” he said.

“We need the young people so the history will continue to be told, so they can take ownership and know this history. This is also a positive telling of the history.”

Johnson said she appreciated the dedication of this year’s younger performers.

“It is something (to note), because they could be out seeing a movie or having fun with friends, but they are always here, and none of them have missed a performance,” she said.

Since its start, Southern Road to Freedom has traveled to California to perform in the Los Angeles area, was named the Tourist Attraction of the Year by the Governor’s Council on Tourism in 1997 and appeared on the television show “Promised Land.”

Southern Road to Freedom starts at 8 p.m. every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday through April 8 at Holy Family Catholic Church. Tickets are $15.

Tickets can be purchased at Natchez Pilgrimage Tours at 800-647-6742 or at nptshop.com/African-American-Heritage_c23.htm.