Last November, Vernon Hurte, head of the Center of Student Diversity at the College of William and Mary, talked to Dr. Royzell Dillard, the head of the Gospel Choir at Hampton University, via email. Hurte and Dillard were longtime friends and had worked on organizing the Tidewater Gospel Festival at the College for a number of years. This was their customary, annual discussion of the initial plans for the upcoming event.
The call Hurte received the following morning weighed heavily on his heart.
“I believe [Dillard] succumbed to a heart attack, just a huge loss to the community,” Hurte said.
Since the creation of the event 13 years ago, Dillard played a key role in its success, including serving as master of ceremonies for the event in recent years after the passing of Tidewater Gospel Festival founder, Dr. Horace Boyer from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
“[Dillard] impacted a number of choir programs all over the country. … It’s great for us to have had a long-term relationship [with him],” Hurte said. “We are doing the concert this year in honor of him.”
The 14th annual Tidewater Gospel Festival, which took place last Saturday in the Sadler Center, still follows some of Boyer’s original plans. In founding the festival, Boyer wanted to create an opportunity to highlight some of the great local universities’s gospel choirs, like those from Hampton and Virginia State University, traditionally considered African-American colleges. He wanted to display the works of great gospel composers and directors at colleges that were predominantly white.
“This was kind of his brainchild,” Hurte said.
Both gospel music and the Tidewater Gospel Festival have flourished beyond what Boyer had initially imagined.
“Historically, [Gospel is rooted] in the African-American community, but now gospel music has connected far beyond [that],” Hurte said. “When you look at those who come to the event, you can track the growth of gospel music over the years, because the crowd is so diverse. You have every age generation, all different kinds of cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, because the genre of gospel music has gone so far beyond just the African-American community. [It] has developed, and it speaks so generally to the human experience. It’s a form of music I enjoy so much, because it doesn’t just speak to me, but [to everyone]. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] talked about this concept of human solidarity, and what I love so much about gospel is that the message of the music highlights that.”
Solidarity is a power that Talita Sueldo ’12, the president of Ebony Expressions, the gospel choir at the College, firmly believes gospel bears. Sueldo joined the gospel choir her freshmen year, and for her, Ebony Expressions has been more than just a choir.
“When we were in rehearsal, it was a family environment,” Sueldo said.
The unity and the openness of the choir play an important role in the choir for Sueldo.
“I like how accepting the choir is,” Sueldo said. “You don’t have to be a Christian to come. The basis of Ebony Expressions is that we sing gospel music. We do want a fellowship, and we do want to praise the Lord… but [most importantly] it’s a reflection of how hard we worked and how great everyone sounds and looks.”
It’s this sense of unity that, according to Hurte and Sueldo, makes gospel and the festival both unique and moving. It’s this sense of unity that Dillard helped create that explains why Hurte mourns the loss of his close colleague and friend.