Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Lifted voices of choir put song in hearts

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It started with 25 elementary school children. “This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine,” they sang from the Ohio River shoreline.

Choir members walk from Kentucky along the Roebling Suspension bridge.
(Greg Ruffing photo)
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        From the center of the 5,000-person crowd gathered at the construction site of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, more choir members joined in singing the hymn. They walked single file onstage, battery-powered candles held high.

        Ultimately, nearly 700 singers — marching across the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge and on an Ohio River barge — sang 14 verses of the song, including several that were Cincinnati-specific.

        The music that filled the riverfront air was the emotional highlight of Monday's celebration, marking the start of construction on the historic project. The museum will be the largest dedicated to the Underground Railroad, a loose network of safe houses and escape routes followed by slaves in the 19th century to free states and Canada.

Choir members line the bridge.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        “The music went through you,” said Tony Horton of Forest Park. “The music brought the whole event together.”

        Anthony Hatcher of Cincinnati agreed: “The music was uplifting. It made you have flashbacks of how far we've come. It brought tears to my eyes, and visually, it was beautiful, too. It put everybody on the same page.”

        Providing that emotion was a major objective of the choir, said Catherine Roma, who organized it.

        “If anything could upstage (former boxing champion) Muhammad Ali lighting freedom's flame, it's the sight and sound of 400 people walk ing across the Roebling Suspension Bridge,” said Ms. Roma, who directed the choir with the Rev. Todd O'Neal.

        “Before the event people were saying they were going to make sure they brought along some Kleenex,” said Ms. Roma, who also directs the Muse Cincinnati Women's Choir.

Choir member Sonny James holds his son, Lemuel, 11 months.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Putting together a choir of this size is a little like military strategy.

        To make sure members received every communication, along with parking passes, T-shirts and battery-powered candles, Ms. Roma created a hierarchy of six coordinators who each oversaw a group of captains.

        “We had to get this together in a really short amount of time,” she said. “Our first rehearsal was April 23. Then the date (of the groundbreaking) changed from June 10 to June 17. That was a challenge.”

        Choir members were required to attend a minimum of five rehearsals out of seven held on alternating Tuesdays at Christ Church Cathedral downtown, and the House of Joy ministry in College Hill.

        “For the first rehearsal we had 170 people,” Ms. Roma said. “For the second, we had 450.”

        The 450 grew to 700, which created another challenge. Where were they going to put all those singers?

        “There were things that kept me up at night,” Ms. Roma said. “Like how will the stage be built? When it was designed, no one thought we would get this many singers. But it was finished and we found a place on stage for every single person.”

        At the final dress rehearsal Sunday night, only 600 choir members showed up. With the date change it fell on Father's Day. What's worse, she says, is that 100 voices substantially alters the sound of a chorus, making it impossible to know what the final outcome will be.

        “The choir was a real cross-section of our community,” Ms. Roma says. “They represented different walks of life, different belief systems, races and ages. That was a wonderful aspect. People were learning from one another. That's the way we can make change — telling each other our stories.”


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