Two women unite to raise awareness about diversity through music
By Frances Figart
What do you get when you combine the educational know-how, historical sensitivity and musical talents of a black woman who grew up into the Civil Rights Movement and a white woman with a passion for collecting African-American spirituals? One of the most powerful and dynamic duos in all the South – and we are fortunate to have them right here in Asheville!
Catherine Riley and Lucille Ray have joined forces to celebrate the legacy of the African-American community in the Asheville area. They do this by presenting workshops focused on “old time spirituals,” uplifting songs that were a means of communication and a source of hope for African Americans as they endured centuries of slavery, racism, segregation and the struggle to obtain freedom.
Complementing the spirituals are Lucille’s unique poetry reading and story telling about what it was like growing up in Asheville before the Civil Rights Movement. The songs, poems and stories allow the two women to raise school children’s awareness of history and issues surrounding diversity and tolerance.
Their program is known as “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.”
When you are in the presence of Lucille Flack Ray, the impression is that this is probably a woman of about retirement age who is certainly not yet retired in mind, body or spirit. She’s lively, attractive, congenial, sharp as a tack and full of the charisma and articulate linguistic prowess found in the world’s greatest storytellers. To learn that she is an 88-year-old who’s won two battles with cancer and has six children, ten grandchildren, ten great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren is simply mind blowing!
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and raised in Asheville, Lucille is an inspired African-American poet, dedicating the proceeds of a recent book of her works, Looking Back and Moving Forward: Poetry from the Heart, to support cancer research. Inducted into the Asheville Living Treasures Society in 2011, Lucille is known as an eloquent and engaging public speaker, unabashedly and candidly offering up her poetry, songs and stories of her childhood in the Asheville of the ’30s and ’40s.
“Things were so hard then. But it didn’t bother me because I thought everybody was poor,” she says.“I was inquisitive and listened to everything I could in order to learn. We didn’t have a television and we were lucky to have an old radio.”
The Asheville of Lucille’s childhood presented many challenges for blacks that are hard to imagine for anyone who didn’t live through that time period.
“Growing up during segregation, we had to live where we were told to live, in the slum areas owned by white landlords,” Lucille said. “The house that I grew up in is still on Short Street in Montford. We couldn’t go to the Montford School (what is now Randolph School) because it was a white school, and there was no mixing. We had to walk down to the black Hill Street School every day. We couldn’t even ride the white school buses.”
Affectionately referred to by Lucille as her sidekick, Catherine Haas Riley became aware of issues surrounding segregation through her grandfather, James McBride Dabbs, who received an honorary doctorate in 1959 from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, for his writings on race relations. Dr. Martin Luther King was the commencement speaker and in attendance when the degree was conferred.
A singer, songwriter, teacher and composer, Cathy grew up outside of New York City, studying piano, guitar and voice. She received her degree from Brandeis University in 1972 and began performing and teaching music. She has recorded four CDs over four decades.
While taking a sabbatical from teaching in 1987, Cathy returned to her mother’s ancestral rural South Carolina home where she became aware of the rich song traditions all around her. Remembering that her mother had sung many southern folk songs and African-American spirituals to her as a child, Cathy contacted some of the older black women in the community and was graciously welcomed into their homes, where she collected more than 100 “oldtimey spirituals,” also called “slave songs.”
“From many wonderful senior citizens outside of Sumter, South Carolina, I recorded months of amazing spirituals long unsung, some perhaps forgotten except for these recordings I made in homes, senior centers and churches,” she said.
Spirituals fall into many categories depending upon their purpose. One of the most common ones performed at the workshops is “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” which is a Praise Song. An example of a Sorrow Song is “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.” “Wade in the Water” is a Message Song, the category often used to provide information for those following a path to freedom. “Come on Up to Bright Glory” was “recycled” into the Civil Rights Song, “If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus.”
When Cathy presented a program of the old psalms of the early white Presbyterian Church and the slave songs of the local black community at her mother’s ancestral Presbyterian Church outside of Sumter, South Carolina, two years ago, it was a big success, and brought the black and white communities there closer. This program was endorsed and funded by the Sumter County Arts Council assisted by Cathy’s cousin Martha Dabbs Greenway.
Back in Asheville, Cathy met Lucille Ray, who had worked in early childhood education since the ’70s. Her voice carried within it all of the terrifying hardship, grappling indignity and struggle of oppression, and simultaneously all of the angelic compassion, dignity, triumph and glory that represent the history of the African-American heritage. They struck up a friendship and began to dream about ways to collaborate.
The idea of doing a program focused on spirituals in the schools came from Cathy’s friend, Norma Bradley, who works for Handmade in America, which is centered on bringing the arts into the schools.
“She encouraged me to talk to ArtSpace about it and they loved the idea,” Cathy said. “That first session was just such a success, teaching the four types of spirituals interspersed with Lucille’s powerful poems and fabulous stories.”
Reflections on racism
Some of Lucille’s stories describe an Asheville that is hard for kids to imagine.
“Innocent blacks were beaten, knocked down, put in jail,” Lucille recalls sadly. “All the policemen were white, the judge was white, and the jury was white. And whatever the whites said went; the blacks were guilty.”
Blacks had to walk everywhere they went. “The Block” on Eagle Street was the only place that had doctors, barbershops, beauty parlors and restaurants that black people were allowed to use. In the movie theatres they had to sit in the balconies. “We couldn’t even sit on the benches in Pritchard Park,” Lucille says. “There were colored water fountains and white water fountains.” And of course, just like Rosa Parks, they had to sit in the back of the bus.
Lucille’s maternal grandfather had been a slave child in Black Mountain, reared on the plantation. “The slave master had about ten children by my great grandmother,” Lucille says. One of those children, Lucille’s mother grew up in Swannanoa and had to walk two miles along the tracks to the only black school in Black Mountain. “The beauty of this part of the history is that the whites and the blacks knew they were related.”
Around age 30, Lucille moved to Washington, D.C. for a few years and worked as a certified medical assistant. She was living there with her aunt and uncle, singer Roberta Flack’s parents, when the riot broke out after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
“I’m amazed and deeply touched when Lucille speaks about her mixed blood and all the hardships of that time,” says Cathy. “I just watch the kids’ eyes getting bigger and bigger and I see it really sinking in in a way that reading a book or seeing a movie would never do. Not just once, but many times, I’ve seen the children spontaneously come up and cluster around Lucille and some of them are hugging her and some of them are touching her and talking to her and its like they are saying ‘I’m sorry.’ They don’t know what to do because it happened in the past and it was so difficult and so terrible, and they see that Lucille is such a loving person and she’s not bitter; she’s just telling it like it is.”
“If it had not been for whites, the blacks could not have made it,” Lucille said. “In the Underground Railroad, the whites opened up their homes so that those slaves could stop and rest awhile, and fed them so then they could be on their way.”
Since Cathy and Lucille teamed up about fi ve years ago, they have presented “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” workshops at countless schools and events. Most recently, they appeared at the Martin Luther King Assembly at ArtSpace School, including in the performance the St. John A. Baptist Church Choir and Rodney Lytle from Warren Wilson College.
“I had the opportunity to share the proud legacy that my mom’s dad was a Civil Rights activist in South Carolina,” Cathy said. “In the 50s, when it was very dangerous, he was one of the few whites to stand up and raise a voice and the Klan was after him. He knew Martin Luther King pretty well. So I think, as Lucille said, the terrible situation did change with the help of some whites.”
Lucille points out that many activist whites were killed along with Martin Luther King because “they believed in change and they lost their lives helping.”
Cathy is currently presenting a six-week workshop on African-American Spirituals at Rainbow Mountain School with Lucille as the main illusionary.
“She is so fabulous with students of all ages,” says Cathy. “I love watching her with the classes we work with. What she offers is so unique that I thank my lucky stars to be working in partnership with such an amazing woman!”
Last year, the dynamic duo gave a presentation at the Reuters Senior Center at University of North Carolina at Asheville, sharing the stage with St. John A. Baptist Church Choir, the Brothers of Faith Choir and soloist Linda Jones. They were also a big success presenting during Black History Month residencies at ArtSpace School, Asheville Catholic School and Isaac Dickson School.
Cathy teaches voice, guitar and piano in addition to arranging spirituals for women’s choirs locally and nationally. She has begun filming and recording African-American seniors here in Asheville, requesting the oldest songs that can be recalled. She often invites older members of Asheville’s African-American churches to present their medleys of powerful, life-preserving songs at various local events.
Lucille is working on a new book to be titled, From the Depression to the Recession.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Aren’t you angry about the past?’ And I say, No! I’m not angry. I am so happy that Almighty God let me live to tell the story,” Lucille says. “And I’m happy to have met a lady like Cathy. Working with her has given me the privilege to open up and say some of the things that have been locked up in me.”
Catherine and Lucille would both like to be invited into more of the black schools of the Asheville community. If you would like to have them provide a program for any group, or if you know some old spirituals, contact Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frances Figart is a writer and editor who recently relocated to Asheville from Kentucky. Learn more at her blog site, francesfigart.com.