Royalties for Spirituals — an Update

(Editor's note: We have asked three different writers to bring us up to date with the progress of the Royalties for Spirituals initiative, how it has affected them, and some hints on making it work for you. The original article was featured in the Winter/Spring 2022 issue of this journal. Please also see Ruth Striegel's review of the book, In Their Own Words, found in this issue. Finally, there is a listing of spirituals that smaller ensembles can perform in this issue's Favorite Things.)

From Susan DeSelms, Minister of Music, The United Parish in Brookline, MA

At the United Parish, this is going very well still. We now have a committee working with me on how to institutionalize the program further and make it easier for newcomers and visitors to grasp the purpose and details of the project. We had a dozen members out of our 200 regulars attend the Spring concert at Hamilton-Garrett. The next concert will bring more people, I'm sure. This coming Sunday, Gerami and the youth choir will teach our congregation about Negro Spirituals, how to sing them, and how the royalties project has impacted H-G. We have been careful not to ask for them to "perform" at church so as not to give anyone the impression that it is a reciprocal relationship. This is a choice they made on their own.

Susan DeSelms rehearsing with the choir of the United Parish in Brookline.

Our congregation continues to be generous, and there has been no pushback or negative fallout from anyone. That said, our congregation had a church-wide book study on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow just a few years back, followed up with members involved in the Jobs Not Jails movement. Other churches may face more internal controversy, but growth is sometimes a little painful, and this is an opportunity to learn and grow. At this time, we've paid about $13,000 in royalties to Hamilton-Garrett.

To replicate the program, here are the basics:

  1. Teach your church leadership team about the value and prevalence of Negro Spirituals. Explain that the music was created by enslaved people who never received financial compensation for their creative output—their intellectual property. Yet, these songs continue to be popular in churches and concert halls. Therefore, the creators need to be acknowledged, and royalties must be paid because they never were before.
  2. Decide how you will fund the royalties payments. Royalties can be budgeted for in advance or solicited in worship as a special offering. There is value to both methods. All pledging members will be part of the royalties payment if royalties are built into the budget. If royalties are raised as a type of special offering, it becomes a slightly more visceral experience. We started doing it the second way and are now combining both methods. We have two thousand dollars in the church's operating budget for royalties payments. We intend to raise that number each year. Additionally, when we sing Spirituals in worship, we collect a love offering so that it stays in the congregation's working memory. It might be a good idea to set a fundraising goal for the project so that you can make a clear financial commitment to your recipient organization.
  3. Find an organization to receive your royalty payments. Hopefully, this will be an organization that will work with you as Hamilton-Garrett has worked with us. I feel these royalties should support young musicians' development in the Black community and, ideally, support an organization that also values Negro Spirituals. For example, royalties can support an HBCU music program (historically black college and university), the music ministry of an African American, or a music school like Hamilton-Garrett. Members of neighboring Black communities may have ideas. It's worth asking if possible.
  4. When you sing Negro Spirituals in worship, print a statement in the bulletin explaining how your church plans to raise money for royalties and briefly why it is essential and necessary. I included our congregational pledge below.
  5. Start making your royalty payments as soon as possible.

Our church made an initial payment of $2000 to Hamilton-Garrett to indicate our commitment and acknowledge that we didn't just start singing Spirituals. We also made it clear that Hamilton- Garrett owes us nothing in return, and we let them know that we are committed to singing Negro Spirituals at least once a month. As much as we could, we tried to tell them how much money they could expect so that they could plan how to use it. The church's size and wealth determine the amount of money devoted to this project. The commitment should be solid, though, and the payments should be reliable. Additionally, members may need to be reminded that they don't have a say in how this money is used and that these payments shouldn't be viewed as charity but as purely and simply the repayment of a long overdue debt. Humility is required and takes more practice than I would have imagined.

I put together a presentation and shared it with many people who report it as helpful. If you think you can use it (please preview it first), help yourself to any of it.

Negro Spiritual Royalties Project Congregational Pledge

We acknowledge the history and significance of the Negro Spirituals sung in worship today:

Let Us Break Bread Together (for example)

(and list others used in your service here as well)

We affirm their artistic and spiritual worth in the life of the world today.

With great respect and deep gratitude for the tremendous musical contributions

made to American music by Black people, we offer our thanks and praise to God

for the creators of the Negro Spiritual and their descendants.

We pledge that each time we sing Negro Spirituals in our worship:

We will sing them with holy reverence and open hearts;

We will honor the unnamed enslaved people who composed them in our prayers;

And we will pay royalties from the funds collected in the offering plate

to Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts,

an organization dedicated to promoting the advancement of young Black

artists and musicians, and to preserving Negro Spirituals in the Black community.

We understand that the debt owed to Black musicians and artists

can never be fully repaid.

Through our prayers, our gifts, and our actions,

we will keep striving to end systemic racism in America.

From Priscila Perez, Director of Communications, The Hamilton-Garrett Center for Music and Arts, Boston, MA

In October of 2021, The Hamilton-Garrett Center for Music and Arts (HGCMA) was invited to the United Parish in Brookline (UPB) for their Sunday service. On that morning, Susan DeSelms, UPB's Minister of Music, shared with the congregation a new initiative they would embark on called the Negro Spirituals Royalties Project. As we near one year of being the inaugural recipient of the donations, we reflect on the many things that have flourished from it.

For one, the Negro Spirituals Royalties Project has gained national attention. At HGCMA, we have been contacted by many individuals, congregational leaders, and media representatives who have heard about us through this project and are eager to learn more. This has led to increased support from congregations moved by this project and our story to make their "royalty" contribution to The Hamilton-Garrett Center for Music and Arts.

These contributions have gone towards the funding needed to provide scholarships to students who attend our program. Although our tuition is at a reasonable price, something that we take into strong consideration for our community, most of our students cannot afford to pay for their tuition. We are excited to be able to provide financial assistance to students who are eager to learn at HGCMA due to our mission of preserving, educating, and celebrating Black music. We appreciate how the Negro Spirituals Royalty Project has connected people to our organization in support of the descendants of the creators of Negro Spirituals.

The Hamilton-Garrett Youth Choir and its director, Gerami Groover-Flores.

As we look ahead, The Hamilton-Garrett Center for Music and Arts is excited to see the expansion of this project. While we genuinely appreciate all of the support we have received over the past year, it is our wish that the support does not stop with us. Although not many, there are still organizations doing the hard work preserving Negro Spirituals. Our friends in these organizations also need support not to continue the work but to reach more community members. For anyone who would like to join this project, we encourage them to look in their surrounding communities for an organization they can support, as Susan did with us. We thank Susan, the United Parish in Brookline, and everyone joining us in our work.

From James Boratko, Director of Worship Arts, First Church of Christ Congregational, West Hartford, CT

Since our webinar in February, the First Church of West Hartford, CT, has made significant progress in establishing its Royalties for Spirituals program. We had several discussions with members of the church leadership about creating the program and established it shortly after the webinar in February. After informing the congregation of the program on Sunday morning during worship, we began collecting donations from the church attendees whenever we used a spiritual during our worship. We programmed spirituals approximately once every 6 or 7 weeks to avoid overexposing the concept on the congregation. We included announcements concerning the Royalties for Spirituals collection on those Sundays where a spiritual was used, both in the bulletin and our worship slide deck. People could contribute during the offering on those Sundays, but we also made it available as an option for giving online. After several iterations of this concept, we raised over $1,600 toward this program.

Finding an organization that matched the objective of fostering the education of the culture of the African Diaspora was not easy. Fortunately, our region has just such an organization: The Artists Collective in Hartford, CT. We contacted them to inform them of our intention, and they were most happy to receive our donations. Our Director of Worship Arts met with the leadership of the Artists Collective to not only inform them of our program but also to foster a relationship with the organization. Our church is a primarily white, older congregation in a well-off suburban community, and we didn't want this to be a program where we just donated money to feel good about ourselves. Instead, we tried to look for collaborative opportunities that primarily benefit their efforts on their timetable — not just a Martin Luther King Sunday program or during Black History Month. We are in the process of scheduling our first event for early 2023.

When news of our efforts reached the community, other choral programs from schools and universities reached out to us to find out what we did and how the program operates. Hopefully, this will encourage others to recognize and assist the development of a society that appreciates the contributions the African American culture has blessed us with and will foster ways to continue to work together for the benefit of all.

Jim Boratko and the choir of the First Church of Christ Congregational, West Hartford, CT.

More resources on the Royalties for Spirituals Project:


A Sunburst of Glory

By Mary Louise Bringle

Rewarded with Holy Grace

Tune By McKee

Lyrics & Arr. Reverend Cliff Aerie

Trenny Responses

By Tom Trenney

Finlandia - Hymnbook

By Jean Sibelius

Finlandia  - Piano

By Jean Sibelius

Arr. WWL

Finlandia - Organ

By Jean Sibelius

Arr. WLW


This Celtic wheel cross is a form of Christian cross that emerged in Ireland, France and Great Britain in the Early Middle Ages. It became widespread through its use in the stone high crosses erected across the islands, especially in regions evangelized by Irish missionaries.

This cross is not to be confused with a variation that was appropriated for use as a symbol of white supremacy. The symbol is vastly used by non-extremists in contexts such as Christianity, neo-Paganism, and Irish patriotism.

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