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Choir tells history through song

ERIC J. SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Tourists and members of the Holy Family Catholic Church Gospel Choir sing during the choir’s performance of the “Southern Road to Freedom” Thursday night in Natchez as a part of the 2011 Spring Pilgrimage.

NATCHEZ — Most of the members of the Southern Road to Freedom Choir have been singing the story of African-Americans in Natchez for 20 years.

A few members have joined in recent years, but most have been illustrating through traditional African dress and song the hardship and spiritual resilience of the black race since the choir’s creation, the choir’s president Lisa Johnson said.

“The whole message we’re trying to get across is the history — both pre- and post-(slavery). Even though it’s negative, it’s history,” Johnson said.

ERIC J. SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Joe and Dee Martin listen as members of the choir sing.

Eleven members wearing boldly colored African garments and hats performed at Thursday’s tour of history.

Some of the songs, moans and howls come from deep, often dark places, and the emotions connected the entire audience at the Holy Family Catholic Church with simultaneous hand clapping, head swaying and chill bumps.

Southern Road to Freedom performances are not always serious, said Johnson, dressed in a black and white color-block robe and an African-inspired hat to match.

“We have a good time,” Johnson said.

After some more solemn solo performances, such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “His Eye on the Sparrow,” a choir member handpicked audience members from of the pews to join the chorus line for “Amazing Grace” and “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

Between songs, members of the choir took turns in the spotlight to represent historical black Natchezians and tell first-hand accounts of people like August and Sarah Mazique, John R. Lynch, William Johnson, Hiram Revels and Bud Scott.

Narrations also educated pilgrimage tourists about the Rhythm Nightclub Fire and the history of Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal and Holy Family Catholic Church.

The facts and figures provide the outline, and song adds spirituality, Johnson said.

“No voice speaks as forcefully as the voice of Natchez,” a narrator said.

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