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In the spirit: Gospel celebration marks Black History Month
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Portia Burns, a member of The Alliance for African-American Music in Northeast Georgia, will lead the mass choir at the organizations 28th annual celebration in gospel music in Cornelia. - photo by Scott Rogers
Alliance for African-American Music in Northeast Georgia Gospel Celebration

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24

Where: Cornelia United Methodist Church, 275 Wyly St., Cornelia

How much: Free

More info: 706-499-2946

Portia Burns tries to spend each February celebrating her heritage in as many ways as she can and ever since 2005, that’s meant being involved with the Alliance for African-American Music in Northeast Georgia’s mass choir.

Black History Month is the shortest month of the year, so the adjunct professor at Brenau University puts as much effort as she can into February’s celebrations.

“It seems like there are so many things in the world that are divisive,” said Burns, former chorus teacher at Gainesville Middle School. “This is one of the few events that everybody comes out and supports … I think it’s just the feeling of everyone coming together for a cause and a purpose.”

This year’s gospel celebration, in its 28th year, will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, at Cornelia United Methodist Church. The concert is free, but an offering that helps fund a college scholarship for an African-American student is taken. This year, Voices of Hope from Lee Arrendale State Prison will return and a choir made up of students from Brenau, Piedmont College and Shady Grove Baptist Church will perform, too.

Burns will be standing in front of the mass choir, directing, singing and playing piano. It sounds like a tall task, but she said she’s used to it. She’s made her way around Hall County and said she’s been to almost every church, either to direct a choir or attend.

She continues to do it because music is universal and can reach all generations.

“It’s the glue that makes people put their weapons to the side,” Burns said. “There are more young people involved in this than when I was coming up … If it’s just older people, it will soon fizzle out. You have to have somebody that’s going to carry it on and have the legacy continue, and I think that’s something that has really improved in the last five years.”

Ann Nicely, president of the Alliance for African-American Music in Northeast Georgia, echoed the same feelings.

“It touches everybody,” she said.

Nicely has been to all but one of the gospel celebrations the organization has hosted over the years. She’s seen it grow, dwindle and now, grow again. She thinks the reason for it growing now is because of their intentional efforts to draw more people in.

“It’s just the reach-out part of it,” Nicely said. “Our goal is to reach out to people.”

Burns said more than 200 people usually attend the concert and she expects the same this year.

“It’s an education of African-American music without somebody standing in front of you just giving you a lecture,” Burns said. “You get to just sit and get the enjoyment side of it.”

But there’s usually not a lot of sitting. Burns and Nicely both said guests stand and sing along, clapping their hands to the music of gospel artists like Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin and Joe Pace.

“You look out and people are smiling back at you,” Burns said.

And the crowd is a mix of all different races, genders, denominations and walks of life. Burns said it’s a community concert, and even though it’s held in Cornelia, people from all across North Georgia have attended.

Burns said Black History Month can sometimes be routine with people talking about the same African-Americans who contributed to society every year. She’s proud of that and glad people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are celebrated, but she wants people to understand her heritage as more than that — as being alive and not just historical — and for her, a lot of it has to do with music.

“When people think of black history, I don’t want them to think of African-Americans as slaves,” Burns said. “We were people that were enslaved, but that's not who we were. We had more to bring to the table … a lot of the heritage surrounds music. There were code songs that were given through music whether they were in the field or in houses. Music was the communication of a lot of African-American people and it impacts a lot.”

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