Christal Heyward, a lifelong Charlestonian and musician, has released several contemporary gospel CDs in her career and taught private music lessons for more than 25 years | Photo by Ruta Smith

The usual hymns won’t be reverberating from the walls of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in North Charleston on March 19.

Instead, the church will be filled with the sounds of traditional Gullah Geechee spirituals as part of an International African American Museum (IAAM) event entitled, “Awakening of the Ancestors Through Music: A Gullah Geechee Homecoming.”

At the heart of this virtual/in-person educational event is honoring the Gullah Geechee ancestors. 

Jenkins | Photo provided

“We look into our past and evoke the spirit of those who made it possible to be who and where we are today,” said Rev. DeMett Jenkins, IAAM director of education and engagement for faith-based communities. “We are remembering ancestral memories, experiencing their gifts and talents.”

This Saturday, Georgia-based Geechee Gullah ring shouters will perform a traditional ritual dance at 3:45 p.m. before the 4:30 p.m. main program, which features a choral concert led by local music educator Christal Heyward and presentations from Gullah Geechee scholars, Dr. Jessica Berry and Dr. Eric Crawford. 

Crawford | Photo provided

Jenkins and Heyward assembled the choir as a means to furnish IAAM events with a musical authenticity. Choir volunteers have roots in the local sea islands, including Johns, Wadmalaw and Edisto that are home to Gullah Geechee heritage. 

“The Gullah Geechee culture has influenced me personally having grown up around it all my life — the clapping, the rhythm, the music, the food,” said Heyward, a Johns Island native. “In the Lowcountry, we have noisy church in the Black community. There’s tambourines, people stomp their feet, people get up and shout and lift their hands. And sometimes in other cultures, it’s misunderstood. The way we do things, everything is big and loud, and we do it proud.”

Berry’s presentation will dive into modern Gullah Geechee culture and language. Crawford will discuss different categories of Gullah Geechee songs, known as Negro spirituals, that date back to the 1860s and the custom of “hymn lining,” a song styling that originated among enslaved people and is still being practiced today. 

“Oftentimes, we view spirituals as songs that enslaved Africans Americans would sing arbitrarily,” Crawford said. “These songs have a very important liturgical purpose in the church, which was the center of activity, both secular and sacred, for the enslaved.”

It’s this categorization of songs that informed singer/pianist Christal Heyward’s selections as she structured the upcoming choral concert. “Songs are selected to represent the different categories of spirituals, such as Lowcountry spirituals, civil rights music and songs for homegoing services in the Black community,” Heyward said. 

She will sing and play keys alongside the choir and contextualize the lyrical meaning of each song by describing where and when the songs were traditionally sung. 

“We walk people through the whole experience because we sing it in the actual Gullah tongue,” she added. “We take the time to explain and paint a picture for those who are present.”

Mt. Moriah Baptist Church is located at 7396 Rivers Ave. in North Charleston.

For more information and to register, visit

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