Alumni and students help save a historic black church through song

Fifteen years ago, G. Kimball Hart ’70 B.A., ’80 M.P.P.M., walked into the Austin Grove Church in Bluemont, Virginia, for the first time. He was there to attend the funeral of a stone mason who had worked for him for many years.

Something about the simple but sturdy structure, originally built of wood in 1872 by freed slaves and later rebuilt with stone dragged from nearby fields, moved him. “I made it my church,” says Hart, who is a general partner in the company Good Works LP in Loudoun County, VA, which builds affordable housing. “But the powers that be in the Methodist Church decided that because Austin Grove is a ‘yoked’ parish — meaning they share a pastor with other churches — it would be closed.” Despite the best efforts of Hart and others to keep the building as a functioning parish, they were overruled. So instead, they formed the Austin Grove Preservation Foundation.

Inside the Austin Grove Church in Bluemont, Virginia.
Inside the Austin Grove Church in Bluemont, Virginia. (Photo credit: G. Kimball Hart ’70 B.A., ’80 M.P.P.M.)

“To build this church took a lot of commitment from the black community,” says Hart. “A great grandfather of one of our board members saved up his pennies and nickels until he had $72 to buy the lot.” Inside the church are stucco walls, deep-set, wood-framed windows, and chimneys on either side of the nave, where pot-bellied stoves once sat. From 1872 until the 1940s the church doubled as a school for children of nearby African American farmers. “This is a rural, agricultural, African American community that has survived to this day,” Hart says.

This weekend, in a special performance to raise money for the church’s preservation, the sound of Yale student and alumni voices will fill the historic structure. Hart has invited the composer and performers of “Call Me From the Grave,” an original musical based on the life of blues musician Robert Johnson composed by Charles Romano ’19 B.A., to perform in a fundraising concert. In the lead roles are Xavier Washington ’21 B.A., a current member of the Yale Whiffenpoofs, as Johnson, and Mélena Laudig ’19 B.A., a just-graduated former member of the all-senior a cappella group Whim N’ Rhythm, as his young wife, Virginia. The musical was performed at the Off-Broadway Theater in New Haven last March, and it was a glowing review of that show in Yale Alumni Magazine that first caught Hart’s attention.

Call Me From the Grave poster with Robert Johnson-inpsired artwork
A poster from the show. (Graphic design by Jordan Boudreau ’19 B.A.)

Romano grew up playing the piano by ear, and was drawn to Gospel, soul, and jazz from a young age. On Sundays, he drives to Saint Bernard Catholic Church in White Plains, NY to play the organ. His musical will be condensed into a showcase of songs for the fundraiser with bits of dialogue and narration to connect them. The songs include raise-the-roof Gospel numbers, foot-stomping blues, soul songs, and hokum blues. “These songs are based on the styles Johnson was familiar with and wrote in,” Romano says, “as well as others he would later go on to influence.”

Anita Norman ’19 B.S., who directed the New Haven production and sang for the student-run Black Church at Yale, says, “Call Me From the Grave” is “one of the most sensational pieces of musical theater I’ve ever experienced. The music is really groundbreaking.”

For the Yale alumni and students, performing in the Austin Grove Church has special meaning. “Johnson would’ve performed in a similar church,” Romano says, “It’s a really big deal — the music created in these spaces forms the backbone of American music today.”

Main image copyright: Lane Unsworth ’19 B.A.

Written by: Brita Belli

First published 24.10.19:

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