Atlanta Music Festival rises anew

'Mixed race' event founded in 1910 is reprised

In 1910, four years after the Atlanta race riots, a pastor named Henry Hugh Proctor created a series of desegregated concerts and called it the Atlanta Colored Music Festival. His hope was to encourage "interracial comity" by inviting white and black audiences to come together to hear black musicians perform spirituals, hymns, art songs and other music tailored by refinement.

For African-Americans, the Colored Music Festival was meant as much as a display of their own "high cultural attainment" as a chance to attend public arts events. In the same year, New York's Metropolitan Opera arrived in Atlanta for a week of performances — by local custom they were for whites only.

On Sunday, the festival begun 98 years ago continues its core mission as the Atlanta Music Festival, a one-show event featuring music by African-American composers and led by Dwight Andrews, a classical-jazz-eclectic composer and the current pastor at Proctor's old church, First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Atlanta.

Some of this year's composers are known within broad classical circles, such as Ulysses Kay and Adolphus Hailstork (his "Who is Sylvia," sung by soprano Louise Toppin). Undine Smith Moore, who died an octogenarian in 1989, was known as the "dean of black women composers."

The new generation is represented by Nkeiru Okoye, born in 1972, whose song "I Am Harriet Tubman" is part of a series on the lives of African-American woman in history.

The program is an updating of the original concerts, says Andrews.

"Proctor's motives were the same as the 'race men' of the era — including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois — who used spirituals, primarily, as a sort of propaganda as a means to uplift the race, to say 'look what African-Americans can do.' "

The original "colored music" event lasted just a few years and met many of its goals, including large and mixed-race audiences.

In 2004, Andrews and Steven Darcy, conductor of Meridian Chorale, put together a commemoration concert for the race riots centennial. After that, Andrews reclaimed the festival idea as part of his church's legacy.

"Dwight is sort of a prophet," Darcy says. "He speaks with such conviction and sees deeply into the truth of conflicts and situations, while reaching out to many cultures."

Atlanta Music Festival

4 p.m. Sunday. Free (donations accepted). Sisters Chapel, 350 Spelman Lane S.W., on the campus of Spelman College. 404-525-4722; www.meridianherald.org

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.