The African-American spiritual is an important genre of folksong from the United States of America. Popular across parts of the U.S. from the 19th century, they would have still been something of a novelty in churches in Northern Ireland by the 1940s, despite the popularity of performers such as Paul Robeson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe across the Atlantic. The arrival in Ulster of segregated regiments and battalions of black U.S. Army soldiers between 1942 and 1944 brought the spirituals to local churches.
On 19th March 1944, Drumcree Parish Church on the outskirts of Portadown was the setting for an evening service featuring music by a choir of black U.S. Army troops. They performed well-known African-American spirituals such as ‘Steal Away To Jesus’, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, and ‘Oh To Have A Little Talk With God’. Afterward, the soldiers and members of the congregation enjoyed supper together in the Parochial Hall.
Some weeks later, on 2nd April 1944, another choir of black soldiers from a segregated U.S. Army regiment arrived at Armagh Road Presbyterian Church in the town. Reverend G.F.H. Wynne B.A. – a chaplain to the Royal Air Force – preached the evening sermon but the congregation of around 600 noted the absence of the much-anticipated choir. They were, however, waylaid. Lost somewhere in Co. Antrim and attempting to find a telephone to let the Armagh Road congregation know of their late arrival.
Their inability to be at the church in time was due to circumstances beyond their control, but as Robert Burns said, “the plans of men gang aft agley”, and this is even more likely to be experienced in these days of war.
Soon after their arrival at around 2100hrs, the U.S. troops enjoyed supper in the schoolroom next to the church building. The ladies of the congregation put on quite a spread for around 200 members who eagerly waited after the service for the soldiers’ arrival. The remaining 400 attendees who left only 15 minutes earlier missed out on an evening of entertainment. Among the works performed by the choir, led by Sergeant Quentin Syrus, were the popular ‘Steal Away To Jesus’, and ‘Oh To Have A Little Talk With God’.
Reverend J.S. Woods thanked the choir and Mr. Ed McCullough of Baltylum who had secured their services for the evening. Following their performance, the choir requested some entertainment of their own. Pianist Mr. W.D. Morrow gave a short recital of popular African-American spirituals including ‘Steal Away to Jesus’, ‘Goin’ To Walk All Over God’s Heaven’, ‘Deep River’, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’, and by special request ‘Tell Me The Old Old Story’.
It wasn’t just Sunday services attended by black soldiers in and around Portadown. On Wednesday 10th May 1944, a musical group from the U.S. Army stopped by the Reading Room of the Quaker Meeting House in Moyallon on the outskirts of the town. Invited by Mr. R.H. Stephens Richardson D.L., the soldiers performed popular songs like ‘Down By The Riverside’ and ‘Over My Head’, accompanied by Reverend J. Allen of Donacloney and Mr. J.W. Burns of Moyallon on the organ.
Mr. Harry Gordon sang ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and ‘Where’er You Walk’. Mr. Jack Pentland, Miss Dawson, and Miss Buchanan of Gilford, Co. Down performed solos during the evening. The service ended with Mr. Richardson thanking the soldiers for the part they were playing in the war effort before Reverend J. Nimmons B.A. gave the benediction. Before a supper served by the ladies of the local Religious Society of Friends, those congregated sang the national anthem and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.
Two nationalities, men and women of differing religious backgrounds, black soldiers, and white preachers all brought together in celebrating their faith and praying for a swift end to the war which had brought them together.