History of The Spirituals Project

The Spirituals Project was not formally incorporated until December 1998, but the organization has its roots in activities that date back more than seven years earlier. These activities included educational concert, lecture and workshop programs, and the development of an educational public television documentary film. These varied activities provided the background and impetus for the establishment of The Spirituals Project as a formal educational organization, founded by Dr. Arthur C. Jones, Clinical Professor of Culture and Psychology and Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence at Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver.

Alison and JennyBeginning in early 1991, Dr. Jones and accompanist Ingrid Hansen Thompson began to conduct a series of concert, lecture and workshop programs on the songs created and first sung by African Americans in slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. The purpose of these programs was to provide education about these songs, in an effort to preserve an important American cultural treasure.

The first of these programs was presented at the Denver Museum of Natural History in February 1991, at the invitation of the community outreach coordinator at the museum. The program was part of the museum’s annual African American Heritage Month programming. More programs followed, beginning in community and church settings across the front range of Colorado and eventually including community, church and conference settings around the country. The programs ranged from one to three hours in length, and all combined actual performance of spirituals with educational presentations on the cultural and historical significance of the spirituals tradition.

By 1996 it was clear that there is a great need for education about the spirituals tradition and their history. With the encouragement of the initial panel of academic advisors who had been helping to develop the concepts for a documentary film, Dr. Jones founded The Spirituals Project as a nonprofit organization. An enthusiastic panel of community people in Denver volunteered to serve as the Steering Committee of this organization, which was envisioned as a broad-based educational initiative to expand the work begun by Dr. Jones. The aim of The Spirituals Project is to both initiate and provide sponsorship for a wide program of activities which all have the goal of offering public audiences an understanding of the history and continuing cultural functions of the spirituals in the United States and abroad.

One of the first concrete results of the efforts of the new Spirituals Project was a 20-minute documentary film entitled Balm in Gilead: The Legacy of African American Spirituals, produced in collaboration with KCNC-TV Denver (CBS Affiliate) in 1997. KCNC-TV provides complimentary videocassette copies of this program to any Colorado school (public or private, at any level) that requests it.

In 1993, Dr. Jones published the book Wade In The Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, which explains how the spirituals embody a rich tradition of values, particularly in human relationships, community, and hope. Now in its third edition, the book includes a companion CD with 22 spirituals, and is widely used as a part music and history courses in schools across the country.

One of the more visible programs of The Spirituals Project is the Spirituals Project Choir, 70-voice community choir that has performed numerous concerts since 1999. Members of the choir come from all walks of life and represent a wide array of ethnic backgrounds, ages, and spiritual traditions. In February 2002, the choir released its first CD entitled The Spirituals Project Choir. That same month, 11 members of the choir joined a mass chorus of 140 singers from around the U.S. in the New York premiere of John Kuzma’s “A Balm in Gilead” (a medley of spirituals for large orchestra and chorus) at Carnegie Hall. They have since released three additional recordings, Toil and Triumph: African American Spirituals, with internationally acclaimed baritone Anthony Brown (2002), Changed My Name (2004),  and They Slice the Air (2007), featuring the epic poem by the same name written by Denver poet, Dee Galloway.  The choir is currently working to release a fifth CD in 2013.

In 2009, filmmakers Larry Bograd and Coleen Hubbard produced I Can Tell the World, a documentary film that  follows several members of the Spirituals Project Choir, who relate personal stories of transformation and share their experiences of performance of the spirituals as a way to help heal a nation still wounded by racism.

Arthur Jones continues to present concert and lecture programs, and the organization recruits additional artists, scholars and speakers as part of a pool of resources who can be called on for concert and lecture programs. Since December 1999, The Spirituals Project has been formally recognized as a nonprofit, tax-exempt community agency based in Colorado. Currently the Spirituals Project is located on the campus of the University of Denver, with office space and other in-kind support provided by the university.

With the generous support of individual and corporate donors, and through its informal partnership with the University of Denver, The Spirituals Project continues to enhance and expand aims as an education-centered agency, and share the rich harvest of the legacy of African American spirituals with the world through Research, Education, Activism, and Performance.