“Father God, we want to be your banner of Blackness, your vessel of soul, the epitome of the spirit.”
It’s been nearly 50 years since this simple, bold prayer united dozens of Black students across sects and predominantly white schools to worship.
This Saturday at 6 p.m. CST, Northwestern Community Ensemble will honor this motto at its virtual 50th-anniversary concert “Legacy of Praise,” with special guest performer Donnie McClurkin, one of the top-selling gospel artists globally.
“It’s huge to have an organization run for 50 years because running NCE is not easy,” said Claudia Kalisa, a McCormick senior and the vice president of NCE.
Five days after the Bursar’s Office Takeover in 1971, Eileen Cherry Chandler, L. Stanley Davis and Clifton Gerring III organized a gospel performance to raise money for a Black student who was arrested for defacing a campus building. The next fall, NCE formally debuted as a satellite of FMO “to fill the void of Black spiritual music” on Northwestern’s campus, and was recognized by the Associated Student Government in spring 1972.
Former NCE President Bob Moore (SPS ’88, MDL ‘89) said he and other early leadership used to joke about that mission statement, not knowing how much it would come to fruition.
“These kids have heavy-duty majors just like we had, and they still find time to rehearse every week and do the musical ministry we started,” he said.
Moore says they settled on calling themselves a “community ensemble” instead of a “Black choir,” so they could welcome Black students from Kendall College and National College of Education (predominantly white colleges that are no longer in Evanston), Garrett Seminary, high schoolers, and non-Black students. In its early years, the ensemble performed at local Black churches, toured students’ hometowns and distinguished itself from other Black university choirs by singing anthems and spirituals instead of just gospel music.
“It didn’t matter where you went to college; you had a Black face, we wanted to involve you in what we were doing for God,” Moore said.
Today, NCE continues to be a pillar for Black Christians at Northwestern seeking community, like Weinberg junior Sarah Davis, one of this year’s choir co-directors.
“I grew up in the church, my dad is a pastor, and so Gospel music has always been a big part of my life,” she said. “And I was in choir in high school. Being able to find something that combined the two here was really cool.”
Due to advocacy by the NU Black Alumni Association and former NCE members, the University is officially commemorating its 50th anniversary. Charla Wilson, the archivist of the Black Experience, has worked to develop an online exhibit tracing the development of the choral group called “Black Sacred Music and the College Campus,” as well as programming centered on Black music.
“It’s just been really filling to see the people that started this organization 50 years ago still have the same passion and still be involved,” said Cleon Beckford, a SESP senior and the current president of NCE. “It’s also just nice to feel like to be appreciated by people that are so important to the history of the choir.”
But Beckford says planning the 50th anniversary amid the pandemic has required “a lot of patience.” NCE’s 2020 annual winter show with JJ Harrison was canceled last March, and Night of Worship in the fall was completely virtual. As vice president Kalisa reached out to a list of potential guests for students to vote on for this year, she decided planning an in-person event wasn’t worth the risk.
“We didn’t know what it was going to be like with covid cases and what the world was going to be looking at like,” Kalisa said.
The pandemic has posed other challenges, too. Between many seniors graduating last year and low virtual recruitment, NCE has retained 15 choir members — about half their usual size. Additionally, new choir directors Sarah Davis and E-D Tadese, a Weinberg sophomore, have had to manage virtual rehearsals.
In-person rehearsals usually ran from 10 a.m. to at least 1 p.m. every Saturday. This year, Davis and Tadese led hour-long rehearsals in breakout rooms and recorded each vocal part for the members to memorize by ear.
“We knew that there are some songs that just would be so much harder to learn [virtually], so we started with selecting the songs ourselves and then let the choir members choose,” Davis said.
As with their Night of Worship in the fall, NCE hired a third party to edit each member’s individual videos together for their 50th celebration. The program will feature solo NCE performances, NCE backing up Donnie McClurkin, an alumni set and the alumni and current choir together.
According to Bob Moore, nearly 200 NCE alumni from the 1970s to the 2000s have volunteered to sing. In anticipation of reaching Zoom’s 300-person webinar limit, student leadership will also livestream the event on YouTube.
After the concert, NCE alumni and executive members will host a social hour and Q&A. Graduating seniors say they especially look forward to the opportunity to reflect on NCE’s evolution and legacy with the ones who have kept it going.
“I just hope that NCE continues to be a force for good on campus and that it continues to put on events that bring the Black community, Northwestern and Evanston community together to worship,” said Beckford. “And for those who may not necessarily have those beliefs, to still be a part of music that has meant a lot to the Black community in general, because of the themes of unification, celebration, and joy.”
“Legacy of Praise” premieres Saturday, May 15th at 6 pm CST over Zoom. Attendees can register here or tune into Northwestern Community Ensemble’s YouTube to view it live. The event recording will be made available in the following days. To learn more about commemoration, visit https://sites.northwestern.edu/nce50/