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Left: Sharon Slater, Jones principal; Meredith Miller, Jones assistant principal;  Anthony Wardrett, portrait artist, Suann Strickland, Jones choral director, Reagan Keogh, Jones 6th grade chorus


Jones Magnet Middle School students experience music as an agent of social change: from the Harlem Renaissance to civil rights


In honor of the 100th anniversary of the era of the Harlem Renaissance, the Jones Magnet Middle School chorus students, under the direction of Susan Strickland, began studying the lives of famous musicians of the 1920s and 1930s. This included jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and gospel and classical artists Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson. These discussions sparked the students’ interest in discovering more about these and other famous artists of the time, and they began researching their lives and historic achievements. Class assignments included writing a sung blues poem based on the Hey Hey poems of Langston Hughes, and writing “I Am” stories about the specific artists that intrigued them. The chorus students also began learning choral arrangements of songs by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and were enchanted by the infectious delight of this music.


The students were surprised by the twin discoveries that these artists became the best in the world at what they did, overcoming severe childhood difficulties and Jim Crow discrimination, and that they used their music to make a difference for human rights and human dignity. Then they began to find that the writings and music and dreams of the Harlem Renaissance were the dreams that became the basis of the non-violence protests that blossomed into the Civil Rights Movement. The Jones chorus students, accompanied by Ronzel Bell, band director at Hampton High School (HHS), teamed up with the HHS choir department, under the direction of Wanda Mitchell, to create a program about how the music of the Harlem Renaissance helped create a social movement that led to the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s. 


The concert highlights the stories of 16 Harlem Renaissance luminaries, includes quotes from major figures from the Civil Rights Movement, slides of landmark moments from that movement, and choral performances of songs by Ellington and Armstrong as well as choral settings of several Dream poems of Langston Hughes and poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar.


“There have been several documentaries, produced in the last few years, in honor of this 100th anniversary celebration of the Harlem Renaissance, that are performances by professional stage artists about the top three or four most famous names from the time,” said Strickland, “but these films consist of performances and explanations given by adults for school presentations. We could find nothing with children talking in their own terms about the lives of these famous people and performing the music themselves.”


The project, partially underwritten by a grant from the Hampton Commission for the Arts and partially by in-kind professional donations, seeks to create a film documentary researched, spoken and performed by students for students, hopefully to bring this rich African-American musical history alive for their generation.


A final, polished film documentary will be prepared from the concert materials this summer and is scheduled to be ready for distribution by September. The hope is to make it available for wide educational use and to send it to African-American history museums and organizations for their educational programs as well.