Thursday, September 15, 2016

History, Humanity and Song: Sharing the Old "Negro Spirituals" with a New Generation

When Henry Norwood (1850-1952) was a young man, he was an enslaved worker on the Benjamin Norwood plantation in Sevier County, Arkansas. Because of his tender age, most of his work was in the "big house" under the supervision of his older sister, Cherry. Working in the kitchen and dining room, they were privy to intimate dinner table conversations. Henry would carry the stories they heard of the war and the coming emancipation to the workers in the field.
Henry Norwood

Upon emancipation, Henry and his older brother Bill made the treacherous 129 mile walk from Sevier County to Sebastian County. Arkansas was a very turbulent and dangerous place in those times. Family stories say they hugged the bank of the Cossatot River when possible, walked at night and did whatever they could to go undetected as they traveled.  It's uncertain why Henry and Bill chose Sebastian County as their new home. Some have speculated that there may have been ties to Greenwood's Gilliam family. The Gilliam family was the first to employ Henry and Bill, followed by the L. B. McKinney family. These families assisted Henry and Bill in acquiring land. As time passed, Henry established a name for himself. We know from the writings of Oscar Stallings, a neighbor, that Henry became known as an arbitrator and  peace keeper. This skill was especially important as relatives and fellow slaves journeyed from Sevier County to join the growing community in the White Oak/Greenwood area. Henry made behavioral expectations clear. When someone failed to toe the line, Henry counseled them. He was much valued and loved, and not the least for his skills as a hunting guide (see photo below) and amateur veterinarian.

Henry and hunting entourage, Greenwood

 Henry married and had twelve children. His children were said to have glorious voices. They formed a quartet. Henry loved nothing more than to hear their voices raise in song. The Norwood singing tradition continues today with Henry's grandson Gerald. Gerald Norwood, below, is a featured soloist with the Arise Ensemble of Wichita, Kansas. The group will perform Saturday, September 17 at 7 PM at the Greenwood Performing Arts Center. There is no admission fee.

Gerald Norwood

The Arise Ensemble will perform the almost forgotten songs of slavery. Once known as "Negro Spirituals," these powerful songs will be presented to a new generation of listeners in hopes that they will be remembered and their message of faith, hope, perseverance and the dream of a better tomorrow will resonate with today's audience. Arise weaves stories into their performance, sharing the roots of the songs and the hidden meanings they held for an oppressed people.

The Arise Ensemble
 Henry Norwood, raised a slave, could have been a bitter, hate-filled man, but chose instead a life of kindness and service to others. He was a friend to man, rejecting no one because of their color or creed.  He encouraged others to adopt a principled life and was a role model to young and old. Saturday's performance is dedicated to his memory. We invite all to come and be uplifted by this evening of historic story telling and song.

Henry and Grandson Lafayette

A Dapper Henry Norwood

This presentation is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Arkansas Humanities Council, the Arkansas Black History Commission, the Greenwood Advertising and Promotion Commission, the Greenwood Education Foundation, Greenwood High School Beta Club and Greenwood Schools. Sponsored by the South Sebastian County Historical Society in partnership with Greenwood Schools.