One by one, sometimes in pairs, people — more women than men, more old than young — walk into the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg.
They are greeted by museum coordinator Lynnette Hardy as they pass the wall-sized portrait of the "Father of Black History Month" for whom the museum is named.
They move into the main hall of the museum where they take seats or gather to talk in small groups.
It is Monday night and they are there for the weekly rehearsal of One City Chorus, a community group of singers founded six months ago with a mission of bringing people together in song.
By 6 p.m., the time rehearsal is to start, about 60 people have filled the room. Two-thirds of them are women; a quarter of them are older than 70; about 10 of them are black.
They open their sheet music as director Jon Arterton, a bald, thin man in a short-sleeved blue shirt and khaki pants, moves to the podium at the front of the room.
Let's start with Raffi's Turn This World Around, he tells the group.
A piano accompanies as Arterton, 71, directs the singing group through the song, which is just one of the many songs about social justice, civil rights, diversity and equality that the group sings.
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Three days later, a mile and a half away, a group of about 15 singers, six of whom are men, and all of whom are black, have already taken their seats at the Enoch Davis Center and are singing by 6 p.m. It's the regular Thursday night rehearsal of the Alumni Singers, another community group — this one formed 37 years ago — that is open to everyone.
The slow, deep voice of a bass soloist draws one into the music as if on the wisp of a cloud.
The only piece of sheet music in sight is on the stand of director Janice Hogans, 62, and yet the singers perform inspirational songs laden with difficult harmonizing and solo sections. No sheet music allowed. The songs must be memorized, a compulsory requirement of their beloved former director, Robert "Bobby" Anders, who died in 2011. Hogans, who took over for him, is a familiar face. She is also a member of One City Chorus.
The bass soloist wears a purple T-shirt with a hue as deep as his voice. He's bald but youthful with brightly colored sneakers on his feet.
A song later, he moves to the front of the group where he is joined by a woman with a terrific voice for a male-female solo.
"Just because, just because, he's God," she belts out.
At the end of rehearsal, the choir members gather in a circle, hold hands and say a prayer.
The spirituals, anthems and gospel music of the Alumni Singers are as focused on giving praise to God as the songs of One City Chorus are focused on promoting social justice and equality.
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At 4 p.m. May 28, the two singing groups will perform together in a free concert at Lakewood United Methodist Church, 5995 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S, St. Petersburg.
A new city, a new chorus
Jon Arterton has always used music to bring together people who normally would not come together.
"It's a calling," he said.
It's a natural for a guy who went from choirboy at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to Broadway and a major motion picture by way of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he earned a master's degree in choral conducting, and Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where he earned a master's of fine arts in acting.
In Cape Cod, Mass., where he lived before coming to Gulfport in 2016 with his husband, James Mack, he founded the Outer Cape Chorale to bring together gay and straight people.
He did the same thing in Sarasota last March with a group called Diversity: The Voices of Sarasota.
In St. Petersburg, however, his aim was different. He wanted One City Chorus to bring together people of all colors. For that reason, he chose the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in which to hold rehearsals.
"I would love to have more people of color in our group. It's part of our mission. But it's been tough getting them," he said.
He's hoping the upcoming concert with the Alumni Singers will change that.
"We're mostly going to sing separately but we will sing some together at the end," he said.
The joint concert was an idea he cooked up with Hogans.
Alumni Singers still strong at 37
In 1980, at the 50th anniversary celebration of Gibbs High School, some former members of the school's St. Cecelia Chorus got together to perform.
Afterward, they talked about how much they missed each other and singing together. They contacted other former members with their idea of starting a new choir with voices from St. Cecelia alumni.
Carolyn Hobbs, 77, one of three remaining members who have been with the Alumni Singers since its inception, said they found there was enough of an interest to reunite.
And so was born the Alumni Singers. While they sing all forms of music, spirituals, anthems and gospel music are their specialties.
The group has gone through many changes in its almost four decades of existence. It is now open to anyone who wishes to join, alumni or not. The result is a professional sounding choir that includes many members who also sing in their church choirs. The group has about 30 members but an untrained ear would not hear anything missing with a practice group of 15 singing.
The members heap praise on their beloved former director, Robert Anders, who led the group for 30 years. They also credit Anders, who spent his career as a teacher and counselor in Pinellas County Schools, for gently meting out the discipline needed to get members to memorize the music and their individual parts.
Janice Hogans, who now conducts the chorale group, seems to get the most out of the singers with the same gentle prodding Anders used.
Contact Patti Ewald at [email protected]
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections: One City Chorus and the Alumni Singers will perform at 4 p.m. May 28 at Lakewood United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. A story Wednesday gave a different date. Also, One City Chorus rehearses at 7 p.m. Mondays. A different time was given.