Mary D. Williams provides a rare form of storytelling, using music to convey African American history in order to emphasize the emotional significance of individuals’ experiences.
Williams is a gospel singer and scholar of African American music from Garner, North Carolina. She recently graduated with her master's degree in Folklore from UNC.
On Sunday, Jan. 12 from 3 to 4 p.m., Williams will perform her piece, “From Slavery to Freedom: The Power of Music,” at the Expedition School in Hillsborough.
Her piece will discuss the role of music throughout African American history as a form of resistance and survival.
“We often look to various art forms to help connect people with the history, the pain, the oppression,” said James E. Williams, Jr., co-chairperson of the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition.
The spirituals and Freedom Songs that Williams will perform date from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and include songs such as “Oh Freedom,” “Go Down Moses” and “Swing Down Chariot.”
“What’s really amazing about Mary is that she doesn’t just speak about this history, but she actually sings the songs,” said Christie Norris, a board member for The Expedition School. “She encourages the audience to sing along with her because a lot of these songs, in their history, were call and response songs.”
When Williams was growing up, she often overheard her grandmother singing these spirituals as a way to cope with racial prejudice.
“She gives voice to not just the lamentations, but the aspirations, the hopes of a people,” Williams Jr. said.
Williams Jr. said the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition is partnering with The Expedition School on this event to further its mission to educate people on racial injustices in this state and how they have shaped society today.
“We are talking about Black history and highlighting the power of music in building communities, and resisting justice and oppression,” said Sarah Parris, executive director for The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.
The eighth-grade students at The Expedition School are responsible for hosting this event in partnership with the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition and The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.
The students embarked on a project inspired by The 1619 Project, which aims to re-center how Americans teach history and emphasizes slavery as the center of building the nation. Williams's performance will be incorporated into the students' project, which is culminating a Black history walking tour of downtown Hillsborough.
She said the Expedition School hopes this event will bring different people from the community together to learn and celebrate Black history.
“Hillsborough is a town where there have been a lot of protests and these students see this playing out in their hometown,” Norris said. “They decided that they wanted to embark on a project where they elevated minoritized voices and highlighted the rich Black history of Hillsborough.”
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