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Let’s Talk: About Reparations and Music

Last week I learned about a racial justice initiative of the United Parish Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, called “The Negro Spiritual Royalties Project.”

To best explain this initiative, I have copied some information from their website:

We will begin the practice of collecting “royalties” ​for the African American, or “Negro,” Spirituals we sing in worship. (Negro Spirituals is the term most commonly used by Black Americans and historians for this body of music. The term itself makes many white Americans uncomfortable, but I believe the discomfort is a necessary part of the process.) Unlike other hymns and worship music, Negro Spirituals were not published until after the names of their creators were long forgotten, if they were ever even known. The​y are ​both ​witness to the horrors of slavery and racism, ​and witness​ ​to a ​merciful​, faithful​, and just Christianity​ which we still aspire to live into today. As an artform, Negro Spirituals are the unacknowledged intellectual property of​ the enslaved Africans in America. Many of these songs were eventually written down, and have become the source of literally countless musical arrangements and compositions published and sold to churches, schools, community choruses, orchestras, bands, and all manner of musical organizations. 

The church rightly pointed out that when other hymns are used in worship, royalties are paid to the owner of the intellectual property, but not so with these musical pieces, which include songs such as “This Little Light of Mine,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The fact that this music was never acknowledged as belonging to the enslaved Africans in America is not just a justice issue that demands voice, but a legacy of slavery that requires some form of reparations.

United Parish Church has decided to pay those royalties to organizations that support the development of Black musicians. Every time a Negro Spiritual is used in worship, they will collect an offering that will be sent as royalties to a particular organization. They have committed to one organization for at least the next two years.

I’ve been reflecting on this story since I first heard it, thinking about the importance of first understanding how people have been taken advantage of and why we have tolerated such disparate treatment for some people that we would never tolerate for others.

And, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of reparations—to repair injustice that goes back decades, even centuries. This church has found a creative and meaningful way not just to demonstrate the injustice but then to do something about it.

These Spirituals are some of my favorite songs to sing in church. I will never again sing one without thinking about the lack of recognition and payment that the continued use of these songs represents. And, I hope and pray, I will never sing one again without thinking of who should be given the credit for this music and reflect on what allowed such credit to be stripped from them in the first place.

I hope this sharing offers reflection for you and your ministry as well.


  • Nancy McKay

    Brilliant idea. If I assessed myself a dime for every time I have sung a Spiritual, I wonder how much that would equal? And yes, I will count humming “Swing Low” at the bedside of someone dying. Does anyone have a suggested organization as recipient?

  • Congregational Church of Belmont has decided to make a donation equivalent to our yearly CCLI license to Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts. From their website: Hamilton-Garrett is a non-profit, affiliated with the Historic Charles Street A.M.E Church in Roxbury, MA that is committed to the development of Boston’s next generation of innovative artists through the celebration and preservation of Black music. If anyone knows of a similar organization in Northern California, we would love to support them in the future!

  • Claire Felong

    Thank you for bringing up this topic, it lead me to research about our Catholic choirs use of the songs. I was pleased to learned that the Catholic Church actually has “The African American Catholic Hymnal – Lead Me Guide Me” composed of both traditional spirituals and music by contemporary African American church musicians. “Produced under the auspices of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, prepared by a committee of African-American liturgists and musicians headed by the late Most Reverend James P. Lyke, OFM, PhD” . Our music minister records our use of the songs and royalties are paid appropriately through the music publisher.

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