The internationally-acclaimed Tuskegee Choir, formed in 1886 by Dr. Booker T. Washington after realizing that his Alabama-based college, Tuskegee Institute, needed a group of singers who could lead vesper services and sing at special campus events, has made tremendous strides in its over 100-year history, captivating audiences at legendary venues including Radio City Music Hall, the Lincoln Center, the White House and even in Brussels during the World’s Fair.
And while on their spring break, The Tuskegee University Golden Voices Concert Choir, under the direction of Dr. Wayne A. Barr, made a stop in the District as part of their annual concert tour on Saturday, March 11 at THEARC in Southeast — continuing a rich choral tradition.
With an audience of just under 100 listening intently and confirming their appreciation with frequent applause, the Choir’s repertoire included sacred and secular anthems, hymns, spirituals and gospel selections, all performed with the highest quality and featuring soloists whose youth belied their vocal skills and commitment to their craft.
One Tuskegee graduate currently leading a District-based group of fellow alums proudly presented Barr with a check for $1,000 — funds donated to support the choir.
“The Choir rotates regions each year for their tour; we’re glad that they’re making their way throughout the Northeast Region,” said Justin Germany, 31, class of 2009 and president of the Washington Tuskegee Alumni Club.
“We have clubs all over the U.S. and many like ours host fundraising events all year long,” he said. “We’re already preparing for our ‘Alabama Big Three’ gala scheduled for May 20. As for today’s concert, we have so many alums in attendance because we all believe that the kinds of music the Choir performs both exudes joy and uplifts our spirits.”
“We all cherish the friendships and memories formed at our beloved ‘Mother Tuskegee’ and want to support our alma mater in every way we can,” Germany added.
As for one successful veterinarian, now 75, he said giving back to Tuskegee and its initiatives like the Golden Voices remains one of his greatest joys.
“I attended Tuskegee in the 60s after the state of Georgia, unwilling to admit Blacks back then, gave me the money so I be quiet and go somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ would be a place that nurtured its students and invited us to become part of an amazing history,” said Dr. William Watson, the director for Tuskegee University’s Northeast Region.
“I should really send Georgia a thank-you note each year,” he said with a chuckle.
“The first time I heard the choir was while I was a student — part of a class of 12 all determined to become veterinarians,” he said. “Many of the songs performed today were arranged by the legendary director and educator William L. Dawson who took over the choir in the 1930s. But the Choir has always excelled — no matter who directed them. I’m glad my wife and I could come out and enjoy it.”
Four friends all proudly wearing Tuskegee paraphernalia — Sandra Richardson, a 40-year graduate in 2018, Traci Blyden (’97), Terri Showers (’78) and Carolyn Quick-Tillery (’79) — described the afternoon concert, almost in unison, as “phenomenal.”
But one of the women shared a more personal reason why she believes HBCUs have always been “lifesavers” for an untold number of Black youth.
“I partied most of my freshman year and after our grades were posted I was told that I needed to ‘take a time out,'” said Quick-Tillery, a Crystal City resident who has since become a successful attorney and authored a cook book showcasing favorite Tuskegee recipes along with highlights of the school’s history.
“I knew I had made a mistake,” she said. “I knew I could do much better. So, I looked up the president’s phone number and called him. He (Dr. Foster) took a chance on a failing student. I got a second chance and he and the rest of the administration made sure I would succeed.”
Barr, now in his 16th year directing choral activities at Tuskegee, said it’s important to do an even better job at “telling our story to the rest of the world.”
“Sixteen years? Time flies,” he said. “It’s still a great opportunity working with so many talented young people and taking them to perform at places where some have never been before. Even more, I continue to see how being a member of this historical choir has had a positive impact on their lives and so others.”
One freshman member of the choir agreed.
“This is my first time ever being part of a choir — back home in Birmingham I’d been part of my church’s praise and worship team — this is different,” said Cornelius Perry, an 18-year-old finance major. “We practice every day and I like that. I’m going with the flow and seeing where this takes me. But I can say with certainty that it’s become more than just a hobby.”