Gathering to honor black sacred music

By Jon Platt

Scholars and musicians from across the nation are gathering today to begin a weekend-long conference over music, faith and history at the 2014 Pruit Symposium.

The gathering, “Marching to Zion: Celebrating and Preserving Black Sacred Music,” stems from work by Robert Darden, associate professor of journalism, public relations and new media, and his Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.

At the conference, Darden will release his new book “Nothing But Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Gospel Music From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume 1.” The book will highlight many of the songs his Black Gospel Music Restoration Project digitized.

Many of the weekend’s events are free and open to the public. These events include a choral led gospel celebration by Dr. James Abbington at 7 p.m. today in Roxy Grove Hall. The public is invited to a free keynote address by civil rights leader Dr. Bernice Johnson at 7 p.m. Friday at Seventh and James Baptist Church.

After Reagon’s formative work in the 60s, she went on to work with the Smithsonian Institute and record the history of African-Americans. Darden said he is highly looking forward to her perspective on such a critical time in American history.

“For me, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, to hear Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon,” Darden said. “She’s a towering figure in civil rights. She was there when it started. She was imprisoned and threatened and beaten and marched. She’s a seminal figure.”

Darden said because of her historical work and musical influence Reagon is referenced throughout “Nothing But Love in God’s Water.”

He also said was excited the Jones Family Singers, a famous African-American sacred gospel singing group, are returning to the symposium this year. The group will perform on Saturday morning at a Gospel Brunch.

Kathy Hillman, director of Baptist collections and library advancement, said she was looking forward to the speakers and gospel singing group coming to Waco.

“They’re lively, fun and encourage a lot of audience participation,” Hillman said. “They are a lot of fun, but their music can be exciting and then suddenly serious, in my experience.”

Also speaking at the conference is Dr. Dwaldalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture; Dr. Emmett Price, director of the James Abbington Church Music Academy; Dr. Bergitta Johnson, assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the University of South Carolina; and Dr. James Abbington, associate professor of church music and worship at Emory University.

Further information on the symposium can be found at