The Ursuline School Honor Choir
Performs Gospel Spirituals under Direction
of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir Director

Students at the Ursuline School in New Rochelle got a real-life lesson for Black History month when they performed Gospel spirituals at the school as part of a special program on February 3.   


Instead of learning about African-American culture from a textbook, the school’s honor choir performed Gospel spirituals under the direction of La Fredrick Coaxner, the choir director at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church. 


Coaxner had been working with the students for several weeks teaching them famous spirituals like Lift Every Voice and Sing; Steal Away and Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. The girls own choir director, Wendy Bryn Harmer, a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, added a special touch with her ringing voice. Students also got to perform with Damon Mack on keyboard, singer Carl Arnez Ellis III and soloist Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson. Coaxner explained the origins of songs, which he called “Freedom Songs” or “Code Songs,” which slaves used to communicate with one another when they were preparing to run away. 


“I was a little nervous at first of how receptive they would be, but we were having rehearsal one day and all of a sudden an energy came into the room and it was as if we were in a Baptist church service,” Coaxner said in an interview with CBS New after the performance. 


There definitely was an energy. I think it’s been really fun,” agreed Ursuline Honor Choir Member Madeline Donovan.


The performance was the finale to a special presentation by Hon. Tanya R. Kennedy who was appointed this past July as an Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, First Department by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. In her talk to students, Young, Gifted and Black, she spoke about unsung black women in history. 


The Black History performance was organized by Tamisha Chestnut, who was recently brought on as the schools’ director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.