Arts Listings

Friends of Negro Spirituals Celebrate at Mills

By Ken Bullock
Friday March 28, 2008

Friends of Negro Spirituals will celebrate the public release of their Negro spirituals oral history DVD set, “In Our Own Words: The Negro Spirituals Heritage Keepers,” on Sunday afternoon at Mills College. 

The first 10 DVDs are each 50 minutes long, with an interview with a “heritage keeper,” discussing their memories of learning about “slavery-born songs,” and the ways they have kept the songs alive in the Oakland-area community. The DVDs will be available through the Mills College Library, the Oakland Main Library History Room and the African-American Library in Oakland, as well as to the public. 

Sunday’s program will be hosted by  

storyteller Diane Ferlatte and will feature old-time community and contemporary choral singing of spirituals, an African dance performance and the release of a compilation DVD as well as the individual oral histories. 

Sam Edwards founded the Friends of Negro Spirituals with Lyvonne Chrisman in 1998. 

“Lyvonne and I recognized the great absence of efforts to preserve Negro spirituals in the culture of local communities, especially after hearing Moses Hogan,” Edwards said. “The goal was and always has been to educate the public on what we call the Negro spirituals folksongs—“the family jewels” handed down from 1865 to keep alive the power they have, the ways the slaves used them for their survival, by voicing the sentiments that carried the  

spirit of protest, religion, of celebration, and reinforced them in the community. That was the motivation behind our getting started.” 

Edwards talked about the heritage keepers: “Not all are musicians; some are everyday people. Everybody makes a different contribution. Some inspire their children through their own infectious feeling for the songs. We can no longer keep Negro spirituals alive through the oral tradition. The heritage keepers are selected by a committee of five or six in recognition of the work they have done for preservation in the Oakland community.” 

He described two of the better-known heritage keepers, Doug Edwards (no relation) and Helen Dilsworth. 

“Doug Edwards has been a popular jazz programmer on KPFA radio for 28 years,” he said. “The past five or six years, he’s included Negro Spirituals on his show, playing jazz renditions, classical versions and the more folk renderings. Equally as important, he’s allowed us to put programs about Negro Spirituals on his show, been a major supporter and consultant, providing contacts with others, which helps us do our mission. He’s been doing a lot that thanks to his airwaves reaching people in populations we wouldn’t be able to.” 

About Dilsworth, Edwards said: “[She is] a professional soprano and music teacher at San Francisco City College for 15 or 20 years, who teaches Negro Spirituals to her students and sings them in Oakland and many other parts of the world with her beautiful, beautiful voice, in what I call the classical style ... she’s very religious, as well as conscious of the importance of both the history of Negro Spirituals and their continuity in the present day. She’ll lead the group or community-type singing, how the slaves used to do it.” 

Edwards noted that classical singer and Negro Spirituals recording-artist Robert Sims, who appeared to great acclaim in a Friends of Negro Sprituals concert with Odetta in 2006, will be performing April 4 at the Four Seasons-Oakland. 

For further information or to leave an e-mail address for updates, go to or call 869-4359. 



Friends of Negro Spirituals 

Oral History DVD release event 

free admission 

Sunday 3 p.m. 

Mills College, Lisser Hall  

5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland