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Birmingham Gospel Singers Bring Old Spirituals to a New Generation

The Second Generation of the Lee Family Singers. From left: Vernora Lee, Tanyese Lee-Kendrick, Darian Lee, Cornelius Lee, Lynette Lee-Stallworth, Crystalyn Haynes, Nayretha Lee-Haynes.

The Lee Family Singers have been singing gospel music in and around Birmingham for more than 40 years. Now six of their offspring have formed a new group, The Second Generation of the Lee Family Singers. Both groups are committed to introducing younger people to music that was created hundreds of years ago, music born out of suffering and hope -- the spirituals. For WBHM, Darlene Robinson Millender went to see the Lee Family Singers in action.

At the North Birmingham Public Library, the Second Generation of Lee Family Singers are getting ready for a concert.

In the front row sit members of the original Lee Family Singers. The second generation calls these women "Mom" and "Aunt."

They've gathered to celebrate the spirituals -- timeless songs historians say slaves in America created and used to express the pain of their existence and the hope of one day experiencing freedom.

Venora Lee, a member of the original group, says they sing spirituals to remember what their ancestors endured. She was one of the singers that suggested the group perform "Ride On King Jesus," now one of their signature songs.

"When you think about the words of that song, you think about the slaves and the ones who sung that, to keep focus and to be encouraged, to hold on," says Venora Lee. "When you think about the words to that song, 'No man can hinder me, in that great getting up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well. No man can hinder me.'"

The original Lee Family Singers were raised by Nathaniel and Edwina Lee. They were loving, yet firm, parents who wanted their children to reap the benefits of Birmingham's civil rights protests and to enjoy things they never experienced, like attending integrated schools.

The Lee Family Singers in the 1980s. From left: Vernora Lee, Lynette Lee, Nathaniel C. Lee II, Talycia Lee, Tanyese Lee-Kendrick, Nayretha Lee-Haynes, Nathaniel C. Lee and Edwina Lee.

Lynette Stallworth is the daughter of Nathaniel and Edwina and a member of the original Lee Family Singers. She remembers her dad as a trailblazer.

"My dad played a vital part in the desegregation of Phillips High School. It was on September 9 , 1957. He went to help be enrolled in Phillips High School along with three other students," says Stallworth. "He was in the car with Fred Shuttlesworth and the three other students."

Those familiar with Birmingham's civil rights history know the visit to Phillips High School that day did not go well for Shuttlesworth. He was beat by an angry mob for attempting to enroll his children in the school. Fortunately, the children who accompanied him that day, including Nathaniel Lee, stayed inside Shuttlesworth's car. But Stallworth says he father's actions, and those of Shuttlesworth and others, were not in vain.

"Because of that, all of us were students at Phillips High School and we graduated from Phillips High School, all six of us," says Stallworth. "So we thank God for that role that he played."

Both generations of the Lee Family Singers see it as their duty to remember the struggle and the perseverance of African Americans in this country -- and not just the sacrifices made during the civil rights movement. They say it's important to not forget what their enslaved ancestors endured. To them, the spirituals serve as a reminder.

"When you think about the suffering that our forefathers went through they had to have something to hold on to to make it," says Venora Lee. "We're here because of that today."

At the North Birmingham Library, there are a number of children in attendance. Some show interest in the Lee's performance, while others look like they would rather be playing video games. Both generations of Lee Singers admit that many children (and perhaps some adults) think that spirituals are an anachronism, harmonic relics that belong, and should stay, in another era.

But the Lees say while our current day is indeed different, kids should still learn about and appreciate the challenges of the past. Cornelius Lee agrees. He's a member of The Second Generation of Lee Family Singers.

"What spirituals mean to me, was people sung spirituals, they sung songs about what they were going through and what they hoped that God would bring them through their roughest times of their lives," says Cornelius Lee.

A recent graduate of UAB, Cornelius Lee believes people his age and younger can find a connection between this vintage art form and the often heady and confusing times young people face.

The Second Generation of Lee Family Singers perform at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 1 at All Nations Fellowship Church in southwest Birmingham.

~Darlene Robinson Millender, July 18, 2014, with production assistance from Rebecca Farmer