A Celebration of the Arts for Black History Month will remember the most famous African American performers in Wilson County in story and song Feb. 23 at Baird Chapel at Cumberland University.
From blues guitarist extraordinaire Chester "Howlin’ Wolf" Burnett and country harmonica wizard DeFord Bailey to accomplished gospel vocalists Maggie Porter and Thomas Rutling of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, their famous sounds will fill Baird Chapel.
Mary Harris, president of the Wilson County Black History Committee, said few people realize how many famous black performers got their start in Wilson County.
"We thought that would be a good way to get people to the concert," she said.
The Nashville Blues Society, featuring Carlos Bailey, grandson of DeFord Bailey, Micheal Neal and the Eastern Harmonizers and the Cumberland University Chorale ensemble will offer musical tributes, which start with the old Negro spirituals from the mid-1800s before the Civil War until the 1960s peace anthems of the Civil Rights movement.
The black arts heritage is significant in Wilson County, as Maggie Porter and Thomas Rutling were former Wilson County slaves who appeared in 1873 with the Fisk Jubilee Singers before Queen Victoria in England. By 1927, DeFord Bailey was the first African American to become a radio regular on the Grand Ole Opry.
Howlin’ Wolf trained with the U.S. Army on maneuvers in 1943 at what was once Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon. He is a legendary blues man.
"He got the name Howlin' Wolf for the way he sang the blues," Harris said.
Myles Horton, a white activist who graduated in 1928 from Cumberland, influenced folk singer Pete Seeger. The founder of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, (now the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn.) Horton trained Rosa Parks in nonviolent resistance before the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Wilson County teachers of the arts in elementary, middle and high schools will be recognized during the benefit concert.
Tickets are $10, and the concert begins at 7 p.m. A silent auction will also be featured in the lobby, along with a bake sale by Cumberland history students.
The Wilson County Black History Committee will play host to the night, and the emcee will be Mt. Juliet police Chief James Hambrick.
Actors Jim Hungate, Lekisha and Aaron Pickett and Micheal Neal will portray these famous singers and musicians as living history characters. JoAnn Brown and Patricia Bates will serve as the co-chairs of the show.
A Celebration of the Arts is a fundraiser for the restoration of Pickett Chapel, where masters worshipped together beginning in 1829 on the ground floor and their slaves in the balcony. Freed blacks acquired Pickett Chapel in 1866, from which two congregations, First United Methodist Church and Pickett Rucker United Methodist Church, were derived in Lebanon.
Harris said fundraising for the project is forefront of the WCBHC's efforts. As always, she refuses to be deterred by long process.
"It's going slowly, but it's going," Harris said, adding there was some thought about charging more for concert admission, but it was feared some might not be able to afford more. "If it pleases anyone to give more than the $10 admission price, we'll be very appreciative."
Pickett Chapel will eventually become the new location of the Roy Bailey African American History Center and Museum for the WCBHC, which has already dedicated a Heritage Peace Garden on the grounds at Market Street in Lebanon. On the National Register of Historic Places, it is also a landmark on The Promised Land Trail on the Discover Tennessee Trails and Byways through Middle Tennessee.
Harris said without the support of Cumberland, the event would not be possible.
"We want to extend our appreciation to Cumberland University, Dr. Harvill Eaton and some of the instructors who are helping us with this celebration," she said.
For more information, call Harris at 615 444-9487, or contact the Roy Bailey African American History Center and Museum at 615-449-2911 or wilsoncountyblackhistory.org.