St. Olaf Choir honors civil rights–era ties to Tuskegee University
Nearly 50 years ago, a large group of St. Olaf College students spent a summer teaching in some of the poorest areas of Alabama as part of a federal program operated by Tuskegee University.
This weekend the St. Olaf Choir honored that connection by singing alongside the Tuskegee University Golden Voices Choir.
The joint performance, one of the St. Olaf Choir’s first stops on its national tour, took place during the all-university worship service at Tuskegee University.
In the summer of 1965, 65 St. Olaf students volunteered for the Tuskegee Institute Summer Education Program, which aimed to improve the education of African American students in a 10-county area of Alabama. The program’s coordinator, Bertram Phillips, told the St. Olaf Magazine at the time that although the program wasn’t a conventional form of civil rights activity, it had the same goal of making an important difference.
“We’re a second front in the civil rights movement,” Phillips told the magazine. “We’re purely an educational program. Our tutors are forbidden to demonstrate. But our program can be considered part of the Civil Rights program because it is concerned with human rights — the right to learn.”
Meeting in schools, churches, homes, and outdoors in hastily-erected tent shelters, the Tuskegee Institute Summer Education Program enrolled 5,700 students. Financed through the federal Office of Economic Opportunity and Office of Education on the condition that its teaching force be integrated, the program operated through 50 tutoring centers and seven mobile units.
One of the St. Olaf students who volunteered to teach with the program, Jeff Strate ’66, went on to make a documentary about the experiences of participants that was widely aired on PBS.
The St. Olaf Choir paid tribute to these ties with Tuskegee University this weekend, says Music Organizations Manager Bob Johnson.
“It’s a way to commemorate that relationship,” he says.
After the service, members of both choirs took flowers to the grave of William Dawson, a famous African American composer and conductor who led the Tuskegee Choir. The St. Olaf Choir has an album, The Spirituals of William Dawson, featuring his work.