Park Place Ministries will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Saturday with Music & Memories, a program recognizing three renowned Homestead musical trailblazers at the Park Place AME Church, the oldest African American church in Homestead, starting at 10 a.m.
It features gospel, opera, jazz and choral music by performers from the church and community. It will be followed by the third annual CommUnity Brunch in partnership with the Battle of Homestead Foundation.
Connie Portis, event coordinator, said in a news release that the program honors Mary Cardwell Dawson, an opera soloist and founder of the National Negro Opera Company; her sister, Catherine Cardwell Gardner, longtime choir director of Park Place AME Church; and their cousin Jester Hairston, a composer, choral conductor and actor.
During the early 1900s, the Cardwell and Hairston families migrated to Homestead from North Carolina for better social and economic opportunities, according to the news release. Growing up, they attended Homestead schools; Mary and Catherine were active members of Park Place AME Church, and Jester attended nearby Clark Memorial Baptist Church.
Music & Memories performers include gospel singers Keith Easley and Park Place AME Choir director Debbie Squair. The tribute to Mary Cardwell Dawson features Grammy-winning opera soprano Chantal Braziel, a graduate of Saint Vincent College and Carnegie Mellon University, and classically trained tenor and Park Place AME pastor, the Rev. Geoffrey Tate.
Central Baptist Church pianist Jayla Grigs will accompany the gospel artists, and pianist Benjamin May will pay homage to the music of one of Mary Cardwell Dawson’s most famous students and Pittsburgh jazz master, the late Ahmad Jamal.
The tribute to Jester Hairston features the combined voices from Park Place, Battle of Homestead Foundation and Renaissance Choir with singer-songwriter and labor activist Mike Stout leading the finale.
The CommUnity Brunch follows in the church social hall. Guests are invited to stay in the sanctuary for a talkback with historian Charles McCollester, and University of Pittsburgh doctoral musicology candidate Candace Burgess, whose exhibit “Music Must Go On: Remembering Mary Cardwell Dawson” launches online on Sunday.
“We are following the tradition of our church beginnings,” Portis said in the release. “A little talking, a lot of soul-stirring music followed by nourishment for our bodies.”
Catherine Cardwell Gardner (1907-94) returned to Homestead after graduating from Wilberforce University, the nation’s first African American-owned and operated university. She founded and conducted the Park Place choir for more than 40 years.
Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962) earned music degrees from New England Conservatory of Music and Chicago Musical College and founded the National Negro Opera Company in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. In 1941, the company’s debut performance of Verdi’s “Aida” at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque broke the color barrier on the American opera stage. For the next two decades, Dawson organized local opera guilds across the U.S. and trained more than 1,800 African American youth in the art form.
A strong civil rights activist, Dawson fought for her performers to be compensated with union wages equal to those of white performers. In her later years, for her accomplishments and dedication, she was known as Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson.
The family of Jester Hairston (1901-2000) arrived in Homestead in 1902 and were members of Clark Memorial Baptist Church. Hairston played basketball and was one of the few African Americans on sports teams at Homestead High School. Upon graduation in 1920, he received a scholarship from his church to attend Massachusetts Agricultural College where he majored in landscape architecture before earning a music degree from Tufts University in Boston.
While living in New York City, Hairston studied at The Juilliard School and arranged African American spirituals for Harlem’s Hall Johnson Choir in the 1930s. Hairston helped conduct studio recordings of the choir in the 1936 Warner Bros. film “The Green Pastures” and was heard by Russian composer/film composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Over the next three decades, the pair would collaborate on numerous films by directors John Ford, Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak in which Hairston arranged and collected music for Tiomkin’s Oscar-winning scores.
Among Hairston’s most notable compositions are “Amen,” the gospel theme from the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field” starring Sidney Poitier, and the calypso-style Christmas song “Mary’s Boy Child,” recorded in 1956 by Harry Belafonte and since recorded by hundreds of singers worldwide.
Honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hairston acted in 20 major films, including “St. Louis Blues,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Being John Malkovich.” A lifelong proponent of progressive social values, he was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild in 1937.
Portis says a portion of the event proceeds will benefit the church’s Books 4 Kids program and fund gift certificates for personnel at Propel High School and Steel Valley High School. “It’s our way to say thanks to the educators, crossing guards and school staff who care for our children.”
The suggested donation for Music & Memories and CommUnity Brunch is $25. For tickets visit Eventbrite or call 412-400-8809; patrons at $100 will be listed in the program.