Since 2016 when the Ruth Starr Rose exhibition toured to the Waterfowl Building in Easton, significant work has been underway to tell the stories of African Americans who lived and worked on the Eastern Shore. A new project, “Maryland Spirituals Initiative,” is telling the stories through the rich tapestry of music – specifically spirituals. Local songwriter and recording artist, Kentavius Jones of Easton, has an integral part in the project and in making these songs accessible to all.
“Freedom has to happen and had to happen. Our heritage is all so organic – it’s just passed down from person to person. That’s what I love about the Maryland Spirituals Initiative because these spiritual songs never would have gotten to us if it hadn’t been for that ancestry. And that’s just like all of our stories in our families and everything else that gets to us. But these spirituals are so deep-rooted, and they cross the white and black communities,” Kentavius states.
The Maryland Spirituals Initiative is bringing an empowering history to life, through artistic representation, written accounts, and oral histories, with a selection of songs recorded by an intergenerational choir of Marylanders. According to Dr. Barbara Paca, B.E., Ph.D., Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, the University of Maryland at College Park, the project grew out of an exhibition she curated in 2015-2016 for Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum on the collected works of artist Ruth Starr Rose. In her paintings, drawings, and lithographs, Ruth (1887–1965) documented the work-life, family life, and spirituality of African Americans closest to her when she lived on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Many of her works depicted African American spirituals as she worshipped at an A.M.E. church with her African American friends and neighbors in the historically black towns of Copperville and Unionville in Talbot County.
According to Barbara, Professor James A. Porter of Howard University wrote in 1956: “Ruth Starr Rose’s visual interpretation of Negro Spirituals is the most comprehensive, and probably the most sympathetic work yet to appear in the United States. Although Negro Spirituals have been interpreted by numerous artists in many different media of the visual arts, no single artist has approached the extensive treatment accorded by this artist to this theme.”
Barbara, who has collected Ruth’s artwork for years, explains that the exhibition led to African American families telling her their stories and the founding of Water’s Edge Museum in Oxford, where many of Rose’s works are now on display. The Water’s Edge Museum embraces history, culture, art, social and environmental justice, and the rich diversity that is Maryland.
“Their legacies are a part of Maryland’s rich oral, written, and musical history and the Maryland Spirituals Initiative seeks to begin a global conversation about the essential role of spirituals as America’s finest art form,” states Barbara. “Music is understudied in telling the African American story. Ironically, these important melodies, composed locally, were recognized by Americans only on a subconscious level. The Maryland Spirituals Initiative is here to change that by presenting to the world, through an online platform, Negro spirituals as America’s most compelling and elusive art form. These spirituals have Maryland ties and ties to the Underground Railroad.”
Kentavius reflects, “Songs like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ or ‘This Train is Bound for Glory’ – everybody has been singing them since they were babies. There’s a spiritual context of the songs, but they were also coded and used as communication tools in the Underground Railroad.”
“These songs are about hope and that’s universal. But if people really stopped to think about it, there are many layers. It’s like an onion. These songs truly keep peeling back layers, and you’re learning more and more powerful stuff. . . African Americans overcame the worst of circumstances to contribute to America. This next generation needs to know about spirituals and how they shaped Black history.”
Kentavius recruited his friends to volunteer for the project, providing the audio engineering, visuals, and cinematography to record the spirituals, which are currently online at watersedgemuseum.org. The filming was done by Chris Dorr, Jess Springer and Shea Springer at historical locations across the Mid Shore, including Third Haven Friends Meeting in Easton, Linchester Mill in Preston, and the James H. Webb Cabin in Preston, to name a few.
“I am conscious of the gravity of this project. These historic locations made it so powerful. As a viewer, you get to see me singing these spirituals in these sacred places. I mean, for me, I was like, this is where it all happens – the full story. And we just keep finding places and creating content. We are paying homage to this incredible music while connecting to modern times,” Kentavius explains. “I am going to create a mosaic with these songs and respect the artists’ authenticity – the original tunes – but interpret them in modern times to make them connect with people now.”
The Maryland Spirituals Initiative project also ties into a book Barbara has recently written, entitled “There is a City Called Heaven,” which honors early African American spirituals recorded by artists, singers, and writers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore over 100 years ago. Working in collaboration, they hope to eventually release an album of spirituals by a mix of artists to accompany the book, which will include the spiritual recordings of Kentavius Jones.
“Kentavius gets it. Music also has the power to heal us. We are all figuring out how we are going to heal, and African American spirituals will be part of that,” concludes Barbara.
For further information about the Maryland Spirituals Initiative and to view recent recordings, visit watersedgemuseum.org. The Water’s Edge Museum is located at 101 Mill Street in Oxford.
~ Written by Amelia Blades Steward