Charleston, S.C.–After the shish kebab and blueberry pie, as dusk calmed the Lowcountry heat, the dinner guests gathered around Park Dougherty’s table prepared to sing. They clapped hands in one rhythm, beat their feet against the floorboards in another, and lifted their voices into a song that had been passed down to them through generations and in defiance of a rigid racial divide.
“Een muh time ob dyin’,” Mr. Dougherty began, “Uh don wan nobody fuh moan.” These were the words, in Gullah dialect, to a spiritual about the wish to die easily and to be taken into heaven by Jesus. Mr. Dougherty’s mother had first heard the song as a teenager in the 1930s, and she requested it for her own funeral six decades later.
Now, on this evening in June 2011, the financial adviser and social worker and music professor and Navy officer, and the other half-dozen people joining in harmony from their chairs, were engaging in a profound act of cultural conservation. In a city built on the slave trade, in the state where the Civil War started, these white men and women were the curators of an African-American religious and musical treasure.