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United in Song

Alumni Gospel Choir expands musical possibilities at Swarthmore

Both a connecting point and a fundamental expression of faith, gospel music brought together some of the first Black students who arrived at Swarthmore in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Beyond the joy of a shared experience, the energy and emotion of singing gospel music connected students to their faith and to fond memories of home.

“It became a reason to gather,” says Cynthia Hunter Spann ’75, a Swarthmore College Alumni Gospel Choir member, reflecting on her first singing experiences at the College. “The choir became the corporate worship experience that I missed. It was more than singing—it was spiritual.”

Over the past 50 years, the Swarthmore College Alumni Gospel Choir has recorded two albums, toured five countries, and held concerts in cities across the United States and the Virgin Islands. But the choir’s beginning and the enduring bond among its roughly 100 members remain connected to the struggle and transformation that came before them.

The gospel choir wasn’t formed, members say—it was born out of necessity.

In January 1969, a protest and occupation of the Admissions Office ultimately resulted in Black students securing a place of their own on campus, the Black Cultural Center. Swarthmore at that time was one of many places across the country embroiled in a national debate over civil rights and racial inequality.

Tension and uncertainty lingered on campus in fall 1970 when members of the Class of ’74 arrived—still very much struggling to find solace in the wake of much unrest.

“We were the largest class of African American students that they had ever had, and it was as traumatic for us as it was for them,” says Vaneese Thomas ’74, H’14, a renowned jazz vocalist and founding member of Swarthmore’s gospel choir. “There were a lot of misconceptions among the faculty and staff about who we were and what we could achieve.”

Despite being among a growing Black student body, Thomas says she and her Black peers often felt as though they didn’t fully belong. “People always wanted to know why Black students sat against the wall in the dining hall,” Thomas says. “It was because we were uncomfortable in the general population at Swarthmore, just as we were uncomfortable in the general population in the United States. It was just a microcosm of what was going on at the time.”

On a campus that had only recently gained a meeting place for Black students, others, like Spann, felt the gospel choir became an additional place of refuge.

“I wouldn’t say it was a culture shock, but it was a very unique experience for me,” she says about her early days at Swarthmore. “I still needed a place on campus where I could feel relaxed and be myself without worrying about political correctness.”

Spann discovered that singular place around the piano in the Black Cultural Center, where she bonded with Thomas and other Black students over a shared love of gospel music. Many of them had been raised in Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal homes and had grown up singing gospel music in their hometown church choirs.

But they felt the dominant vocals, strong harmonies, and vibrant spiritual lyrics of gospel music did not yet have a place at Swarthmore. At that time, the College chorus was the only option for students who wanted to sing and—as Thomas learned when she briefly joined—the music they performed was strictly Western 

European. Driven by the need for a musical outlet of their own, the Black students who wanted to sing gospel turned their informal gatherings around the piano into rehearsals. Those singers—Karen Shropshire Yancey ’75, Carolyn Mitchell ’74, Beth McMillan-McCartney ’75, Patrice Harris Pompa ’75, Lynette Hunkins ’74, Cheryl Sanders ’74, Chiquita Davidson Hayes ’74, James Batton ’72, Terry Hicks ’73, Thomas, and Spann—became the founding members of Swarthmore’s first gospel choir.

They began hosting concerts that attracted wide audiences from the Swarthmore community, their songs of spirit and faith helping the choir to form a bridge on a divided campus.

“We were ministering to members of the campus who were not African American, but who appreciated and accepted our form of ministry,” Spann says. “That was an affirming experience for a lot of our members.”

In the years that followed, the choir’s founding members graduated and went back to their respective hometowns. Thomas, the daughter of the musical legend Rufus Thomas, returned to Memphis and launched a successful career, earning invitations to perform in concerts and festivals around the world, including several Pavarotti & Friends concerts in Modena, Italy, and the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. She went on to write and produce songs for well-known artists such as Patti Austin, Freddie Jackson, Melba Moore, and Diana Ross.

Meanwhile, the student gospel choir continued performing and recruited new members, including NiYa Costley ’97, who despite having joined many years after the choir’s inception, found it still met a critical need for Black students.

“The choir was a safe space, emotionally and socially,” Costley says. “It was a place where you could find people who understood your story.”

In 1986, Thomas and other members returned to Swarthmore for a reunion concert. Reunited, they rediscovered the joy and connection they’d forged long ago and made a plan to carry it forward with the formation of the Swarthmore Alumni Gospel Choir.

News of the group spread quickly, attracting alums like Sam Brackeen ’68 to join.

Brackeen came to Swarthmore in 1964 as one of fewer than 20 Black students in his class and as the only Black student in his civil engineering program. When he first heard about the Alumni Gospel Choir, he thought it might be a hoax.

“I was probably in disbelief because that was not the kind of thing you’d find at Swarthmore back then,” Brackeen says. “But the one thing you do find at Swarthmore is that one or a few people can make a difference.”

For many members of the gospel choir, Thomas made that difference. As director, she’s been the driving force that not only redefined the musical possibilities at Swarthmore but also helped countless students explore and perfect their passion for song. Members like Joan Cargill ’89 say it’s what has kept the choir going strong for so many years.

“The thing that inspires me most is that, despite what’s going on in our lives, when we get the call to perform, we jump up and come, and many of us do that because Vaneese is leading us,” Cargill says. “We’re in her vortex when we get there because we know we’re going to have a good time, we’re going to be cared for, she’s going to be helping us as we are growing and learning, doing something that we love and with a leader that is so dynamic.”

Under Thomas’ tutelage, the Alumni Gospel Choir recorded and released its first album, Hallelujah! Amen, in 1996, and another, Star Gazer, in 2000. Proceeds from the album sales funded two student scholarships. The choir performed concert tours in China, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, and South Africa.

In 2014, Swarthmore honored Thomas’s “faith and commitment to those in need of musical uplift” with an honorary doctor of arts degree.

The alumni choir continues to rehearse and perform, with members across the country managing to travel to Swarthmore several times a year. They’ve fostered a depth in their relationships—across generations, a rarity in alumni organizations where affinity can wane with distance and time.

“It’s an intergenerational bond,” Cargill says. “It creates this connection that otherwise would not exist. We sing together; we’ve traveled together. The choir brings us together in ways that other activities just don’t.”

They don’t just sing together—they share life’s joys and sorrows together, too.

When the choir learned of the 2010 death of Kathryn Morgan, the Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Professor Emerita of History and a dedicated supporter who “had never missed an Alumni Gospel Choir performance,” they returned to Swarthmore to sing for her Celebration of Life ceremony.

They commemorate milestones in each other’s lives, too. It’s all part of using gospel music to express the love of God to others.

“This experience resonates with me very personally because my father’s philosophy on ministry was to emulate the love that God has shown us and to try to give that back to others. And that’s what this choir is all about,” Brackeen says. “It’s a ministry that’s founded on love.”

When longtime choir member Beth McMillan-McCartney ’75 got married in California, Spann and Yancey trekked across country to attend  her wedding. And recently, when McMillan-McCartney’s daughter got married, five gospel choir members attended the ceremony; four of whom sang and one officiated.

“We’ve maintained contact,” McMillan-McCartney says. “We maintained those friendships we developed in college because those relationships really meant a lot to us—and still do.”

After leading the gospel choir as her labor of love for more than four decades, Thomas plans to pass the torch to a new director by 2021. She hopes the choir will continue to thrive because she believes it’s as vital now as it was 50 years ago.

“We still live in a very disturbing world,” she says. “The friendships that we made during those times were really important to keeping your head on straight. When we started, it was filling this great need and I don’t think that need ever went away. I don’t think it ever will.”