Ohio Northern’s Multiracial Gospel Ensemble Sings from the Heart

Can a gospel ensemble create authentic gospel music if it has more white singers than black singers? That is the primary question that Adriane Thompson-Bradshaw, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Ohio Northern University (ONU), investigated in her doctoral dissertation on American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University. For Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw, the project was personal. She started the ONU Gospel Ensemble (GE) in 1987 and, as its advisor, has watched it evolve into a biracial group over the last 27 years.

When Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw first came to ONU in 1987 to work in student affairs, the campus and the town were not racially diverse. She was the only African-American woman living off-campus in Ada, Ohio, where ONU is located. There were only two other African Americans working on campus, both men over age 60 who commuted from another town. There were two campus organizations – the black student union and the black law student union – to address the unique needs of the small African American student population. Most, if not all, of these students did not join other campus groups, so when Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw formed the ONU GE, it was in part to serve as a support system for these students. Because many of the students grew up going to African American churches with gospel music, it gave them a home away from home in addition to providing a way to worship through song.

The GE became one of several Religious Life Outreach Teams at ONU that performed off-campus, mostly in churches within a two to three hour radius from campus. Most requests for performances came from United Methodist churches, with which ONU is affiliated. In her dissertation, Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw detailed the early experiences of the group which were predominantly in all-white, rural churches. Many times it felt as if the GE was “on display” being the only African Americans in the building, and sometimes well-intending parishioners provided tactless feedback after performances. These experiences led to many discussions in the GE van on the way back to campus, which helped the students process the way they were perceived in the world within the safety of the group.

Changing Times, New Faces

In 1994, a white undergraduate student named Heather joined the ONU GE at the suggestion of her dorm’s resident assistant, an African American member of the GE. Heather had mentioned that she loved gospel music but lamented the fact that she was not a good singer. The GE was not audition-based, and therefore she followed through on her friend’s suggestion to join the group. After Heather’s participation, more white students joined the GE. Just five years later, white students outnumbered African American students in the GE. That has held true every year since 1999.

Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw has some theories as to why this has occurred. The GE wasn’t the only campus group that saw more integration among races. Whereas African American students did not join other groups when the GE was formed, these students were now avidly participating in campus performance groups, such as music department ensembles and theatre productions. Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw believes that after one or two white students joined the GE, it didn’t seem so unusual, and therefore it opened up the possibility for more white students to become group members. She also suspects that fewer African American students were coming from a background in which churchgoing and gospel music played a significant role in their lives.

It’s interesting to look at what drew both African American and white students to the group. In her dissertation, Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw asked both GE alumni and current students this question, and most answers pointed to the same reason.

“It gives them a freedom to worship in a way that they enjoy,” said Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw.

The shifting demographics did not go unnoticed. When a group of older GE alumni returned to campus for an anniversary celebration, at first some seemed quite put off by white students being part of the GE. They felt that a fundamental change had occurred, and that the group had drifted from what it was intended to be. At one point, even Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw was concerned. As the advisor, was she letting the group stray too far from the roots of gospel music? Yet she welcomed all who showed an interest in participating, which had a major impact on how others felt. In direct contrast to the alumni’s perceptions, current GE members had a casual, open attitude about the group’s racial make-up. Eventually, even alumni who had objections became more comfortable with the change.  One of them told Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw that while they initially had concerns they were eased when it seemed Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw was comfortable with it.

“There is room for students of any color, and the ensemble has proven to be valuable for them,” said Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw. “And because we are a mixed group it is a less voyeuristic experience for the audience when we visit isolated, rural churches.  Because the group is racially mixed, I think it allows people from various backgrounds to see themselves in it.”

Questioning the authenticity of the music proved to be a worthwhile topic for Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw’s dissertation, however. Through surveys, interviews, field notes, and the sharing of her personal narrative, Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw deeply examined whether the group was creating authentic gospel music. She does not claim to have reached a definitive conclusion but instead hopes that this opens the door for more conversations about it. For Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw, however, the answer is yes, the ONU GE creates authentic gospel music.

“There is a quote that says, ‘What comes from the heart reaches the heart,’” said Dr. Thompson-Bradshaw. “They’re giving what they’ve got back to God. When people get into it, they make it their own, and that spiritual component makes it authentic.”