Even though it’s named after the legendary Austrian composer, Coconut Grove’s Mozart Choir was not known for classical music compositions. Now defunct, the African-American choir instead sang harmonious hymns, anthems and revered spirituals, as songs of praise to God.
For more than 100 years, the choir was a unique addition to the Greater St. Paul A.M.E. Church at 3860 Thomas Ave.
It was often recognized by the community for its spirituals, which are treasured traditional songs that originated during slavery in the United States.
“Some of these hymns and spirituals tell that story. Think about what our people went through back in those days. When they were back there, they’d be picking cotton and they’d be singing these spirituals, sooner we’d be done with the troubles of the world, stuff like that,” said Barbara Sands, 75, who was a choir member.
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Sitting in the nook of the church, Sands recalled the legacy of the songs she rehearsed every week before Sunday service for nearly 40 years.
“I can be at my house and I can be washing dishes and I could just be…” Sands said.
She closed her eyes and hummed softly, lost in a moment reliving a song that is no longer sung.
“They were songs that they revived years ago from the fields,” said Jimmie Ingraham, 74, one of the youngest members of the choir.
Once vibrant and young, the 15-member ensemble would perform songs every month. In 2009, as age caught up with the members, the diminished choir was combined with a younger, more contemporary Gospel choir. At first, they sang some of the old songs, but eventually stopped.
“It may have a lot to do with the ministry itself,” said Phyllis Austin, Greater St. Paul’s musical director for more than 30 years. “They don’t have a desire to sing those types of songs. They wanted something different.”
Others church members echoed similar sentiments.
Now, the church’s Mass Choir, which is a combined ensemble of voices from three separate musical groups, leads Sunday morning services with contemporary songs.
“There’s no more choir like that one,” said Virginia Robinson, 79, who is also a former member. “Their heart was really in it.”
The Mozart Choir was originally established in 1902 by a group of churchgoers, six years after the church was founded in 1896. They assembled themselves as a group under J.B. Brookins, who became the choir’s first president and director.
In its 108-year history, the religious chorale had about 70 members; eight are still alive. Although the number of members has waned in recent years, their harmonized voices singing spirituals are still remembered and appreciated.
Annie Jackson, 94, a member of St. Paul’s since 1935, called the group a staple in the church’s history. Jackson, who was not a choir member, recalled that they were often asked to sing in other community churches.
The choir represented an opportunity to praise God through compositions like Take My Hand, Precious Lord; How Great Thou Art; and Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.
Most of the members had some form of musical training, or could read notes. And for those who couldn’t, the group taught them how to.
“If you can’t play it you can read your part, and you know when it’s up, down, stays the same. We were taught,” Sands said. “Singing in the choir you learn how to follow directions, how to sing your part.”
Like clockwork on the first Sunday of the month, the choir, dressed in white robes and black choir stoles, lined the hallway before the 7 a.m. service. They walked down the church’s aisle and filed into pews on the right side of the alter. During songs, one member led the harmony of sopranos, altos, baritones and bass voices that were often accompanied by a organ or piano.
The choir’s last performance was in February 2009, for the funeral service of Cliffonia J. Ross, the choir’s former secretary.
Robinson remembers that when the choir’s organist touched the organ’s keys, “It just did something throughout that church and outside.”
For the choir’s oldest surviving member, Grady Dinkins, the choir meant an opportunity to serve the church. She took a leadership position selecting music for the group to practice and perform on Sundays.
“This service made me happy because I had an opportunity to work with others,” she said. Even today, Dinkins, 92, remains an active member of parish. She teaches 5-year-olds at the church’s Sunday school every week.
Although the choir no longer sings, many members still attend services and participate in song as part of the larger congregation, but they will never forget their experience in the group.
“They appreciated us and the praise that we received from the congregation was very worthwhile,” Dinkins said.
And when the oldest-living choir dissipated, the tradition of singing the anthems and spirituals went out with them.
“They knew that they were singing for a reason and it was not just out of the joy of singing,” said Renita Samuels-Dixon, the daughter of a long-standing member. “It was reverence to God.”