Signal and Map Songs of the Underground Railroad


By Connie Morrison — An idea seeded at a Black History Month program at Ker Place in 2017 will bear fruit tonight as the Mary N. Smith Alumni Association, the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society, and local African Methodist Episcopal church choirs join forces to present “A Celebration of Negro Spirituals.” AME choirs and soloists will explore the spirituals used by slaves as signal and map songs to guide their journeys along the Underground Railroad.

“In 2017, we did a program called ‘Shore Black History Lives, a Conversation: How We Prayed, Played and Made a Way Out of No Way,’” said Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society Executive Director Hilary Hartnett-Wilson. “I was inspired by an elderly woman in the audience that got up at the end of the program totally unexpectedly, and broke into song, singing an old hymn a cappella. It was amazing and I thought how great it would be to have a choir sing of spirituals.”

The choral showcase will feature the United Voices of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Temperanceville; a choir composed of numerous members from several Shore AME churches; and the Anointed Word Choir from Anointed Word Church of God and Christ in Keller.

Karen Downing, representing the alumni association, said the event was the type of program for which the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center was intended. “We endeavor to be a good neighbor and partner with other organizations in the future.”

Downing is also a member of United Voices of Jerusalem Baptist Church. “Our Pastor, Rev. Richard Holland, encourages and supports our ministry going outside the walls of the church into the community. We are excited to be a part of this event,” she said.

But she also finds personal meaning in participating. “This event is important to give awareness of Black History Month and the challenges, achievements, and accounts of all facets of that history, including the songs and messages associated with them as slaves sojourned to freedom.”

Doug Strand has been the music minister at Gaskins Chapel for more than 20 years. He served on the planning committee for the event and coordinated the participation of area AME churches. Strand said they jumped at the chance to sing at the black history celebration. “The singing of spirituals and signal songs holds a special place for the AME Church,” he said. “We were founded in 1787 by Richard Allen, the denomination was birthed by the Free African Society in Philadelphia, Pa., so the Underground Railroad played a tremendous part of not only our history as a people but also our Christianity. This would be maybe what some would term ‘a full-circle moment!’”

Hartnett Wilson praised the work of those who pulled together the program, “my staff, Amy Savona, Stephanie Templin, and Stacey Gardner; and Decola Johnson, Douglas Strand, and Karen Downing rounded out the committee,” she said. “Amy and Stephanie researched the spirituals and Douglas, Decola, and Karen arranged for the choirs and soloists.”

“I hope this thoughtful and memorable event will provide our audience with a broader perspective of our American History,” said Hartnett-Wilson. “In these days any opportunity to promote inspiration and understanding is a win.” 

The details:

“A Celebration of Negro Spirituals” will be from 6:30 to 8 p.m. tonight (Friday, Feb. 15) in the gymnasium of the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center, 24577 Mary N. Smith Rd., Accomac

Admission will be $10 at the door. Payment by cash or check only. Proceeds will be shared by the Historical Society and the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center, both nonprofit organizations.

For more information call 757-787-8012, visit or go to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society Facebook page.

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