Celebrating black history at the North Shore Historical Museum

Songs to celebrate Black History Month


The main hallway of the North Shore Historical Museum was alive with the celebratory voices of the First Baptist Church Adult Choir on Sunday, as the group performed a variety of gospel songs for a crowd of people of different backgrounds.

The performance served as a rousing kickoff of Black History Month, during which the museum will feature a Harlem Hellfighters exhibit. On display until March 2, the exhibit honors the lives of black soldiers who served in a special unit in the U.S. Army during World War I, many of them from Glen Cove and the surrounding communities.

The 10-member choir, accompanied on piano by director Dan Powell, performed nine songs celebrating the Christian faith as well as African-American heritage. The second half of the performance featured three poems by Victoria Crosby, Glen Cove’s poet laureate: “The Divine Spirit,” “The Truth Shall Set You Free” and “Can You See Freedom?”

Crosby also helped organize the performance. A member of both the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Commission and the museum’s board of trustees, she said that it felt natural to bring the choir to the museum for the performance.

The group’s gospel songs featured booming voices and upbeat clapping. The singers encouraged their audience to stand up and join in.

In between songs, choir members read descriptions of gospel music’s history — its roots in the songs of slaves who were forced into Christianity by their masters, and the emphasis of song in prayer, a cultural phenomenon that can be traced back to Africa.

According to the accounts they read, even after slavery ended in the U.S., African-Americans were still oppressed in traditionally white churches. In response, many founded separate churches in which they could worship in a setting where all were treated equally. Gospel music became a focal point in these churches, and continues to play an important role in the lives of many African-Americans today.

The choir performs each week at First Baptist, but this performance was special, Powell said, because its members had the chance to share their passion with people outside the church. “We could show how we believe our faith and make them feel good,” he said. “It was great.”

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Roger C. Williams, agreed that it was a joy to be able to extend its members’ faith to a wider audience, as well as to show just how important gospel music is to the African-American community. “It gave [the choir] an opportunity to take a page out of the black church history,” Williams said, “and share with [the audience] what these songs meant existentially, beyond the interiority of the individual.

“These songs were more than just about a feeling,” Williams continued. “. . . They were also about how we were going to strive and be in power politically, how we were going to strive to be in power economically. Not so much to be in the place of our abusers and slave owners, but to participate fully in our humanity. That’s what these songs meant.”

Amy Driscoll, the museum’s director, said she was honored to host the event, not only because of the choir’s talent, but also because of the role it plays in Glen Cove. The museum is committed to making the people of the North Shore aware, she said, of those who helped form their communities — the current members of First Baptist as well as the Harlem Hellfighters of a century ago. “I feel that’s what we were meant to do,” Driscoll said.

This event served as a lively opening to Black History Month, which, Williams said, holds a great deal of meaning for the church and the African-American community at large. “It means reflection,” he said. “It also means taking the principles of what helped us strive successfully, struggle successfully and then continue moving on beyond the legacy of slavery . . . and then move on to the future.”