ST. PETERSBURG — Music rooms are just about the same from school to school and church to church: a piano in the corner, a chalkboard on the wall, chairs lined up in tidy rows.
The three singers know these rooms like their own homes.
Betty Hayward and Helen Shaw settled down next to each other, straight-backed in the front row. They had always been good students. Carolyn Hobbs stood to their right, making sure the rest of the choir was focused. Betty and Helen, both altos, had always figured Carolyn, a soprano, would be an opera singer someday. She had soloed for as long as they could remember, lifting her voice to trill like a bird, all the way back to the 1950s when they sang together in Gibbs High School’s St. Cecelia Choir.
The director of the Alumni Singers leafed through sheet music in the carpeted room at Lakewood United Methodist Church on Sunday, reminding them of their cues and key parts. “Sing, ‘Joy!,’ she commanded, almost shouting.
The men adjusted their scarlet cummerbunds. The women arranged bedazzled sashes around their hips.
The singers posed for headshots in front of the chalkboard. Betty beamed. Helen, for whom music has always been serious, looked stern before the photographer prodded her to smile.
They flipped through the program for their annual Christmas concert, with the memorial to Yvonne Clayton, soprano, an original member who “transitioned to the Heavenly Choir” earlier this year. Yvonne was also a member of the Class of 1957 at Gibbs.
The women never thought they would be here, still singing in their hometown, more than six decades after they began. They do not know how long they will go. But for now, their voices still carry, and people file in by the dozen to hear them and their fellow choir members sing at their two yearly concerts.
“The stage?” Janice Seay Hogans, the director, asked, trying to amp them up.
They replied in unison: “Is ours.”
There is something special, the singers believe — undeniable and irresistible — in harmony.
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Helen, 79, remembers first singing in kindergarten, in the choir for a pageant wedding among children.
It wasn’t until later, at the old 16th Street Middle School, that she really harmonized.
Betty and Carolyn, both 80, played basketball there, when the women’s game was still only half-court. They joined Helen in the chorus, all three having sung before, drawn to performance after growing up listening to music with their mothers or sisters or grandparents. Among black residents of St. Petersburg, the St. Cecelia Choir at Gibbs High School had a sterling reputation, singing spirituals and major works at churches and events around the city.
The women don’t remember ever trying out. “You sang, and that’s what you did,” Carolyn said. “Everybody knew.”
At Gibbs, they learned to enunciate their vowels. They practiced projecting their voices, using their diaphragms.
“I thought I was going to be the next Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald,” Helen said.
Betty was the rare high school girl with a car, her family’s old Ford, the “blue goose,” in which she’d pile friends and head to South Mole Beach. They weren’t welcome at the whites-only Spa Beach downtown. Carolyn remembers avoiding Gulfport after dark, where she’d heard police would stop and harass black men who worked at local cafeterias.
With the choir, they visited white churches. They remember their director was adamant that they get the songs right.
Singing brought Carolyn a scholarship to Howard University, where she studied voice. Helen and Betty attended Bethune-Cookman, where Helen sang and Betty studied business.
They came back to St. Petersburg. Carolyn worked at an insurance company and then the local newspaper, while Betty directed a volunteer program and Helen worked for Pinellas County Schools and Eckerd College. In the 1980s, they joined the Alumni Singers, which Carolyn helped set up for their high school’s 50th anniversary.
Over time, their voices got a little deeper. They learned new songs. They sang all over the city. They still practice twice a week.
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Memorizing songs takes longer than it used to. Helen thinks about how, in high school, even without paper, she could visualize the page in her head. Not anymore.
She takes an arthritis pain tablet before concerts, because standing for so long makes her legs and feet ache. At Gibbs, they wore black skirts, white blouses and heels, the memory of which gives Helen chills. Today, she and Betty wear flats.
“At this age we can still harmonize, love each other and have another purpose for being here,” Betty said. “We know that we’re bringing joy to other people.”
People of all ages showed up Sunday. Some drifted into the church with walkers. One was still teething.
In the music room, the singers linked hands in a circle and prayed.
“Give us peace, give us strength, give us your energy and we’re just going to go out there and rock the house in Jesus’ name.”
They aligned themselves in the sanctuary in two rows, shoulders angled to the front, bright lights on them. Helen stood just one spot away from Betty. Carolyn readied for an early solo.
The church quieted as the director raised her arms.
All together, with authority, they prepared to sing.
This story sprung from a Black History Preservation Drive co-sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times in November at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum. If you’d like to suggest an idea, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.