To honor the life of Dorothy Cotton, the choir that bears her name will be embarking on a three-stop tour, performing shows in three different places that were near and dear to Cotton’s heart.
Cotton, a civil rights movement era icon, died in Ithaca on June 10, 2018. She settled in the area after a lifetime of activism, working as the education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and growing to be part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s circle of friends and advisors. The tour begins May 10, with a show at Ford Hall on Ithaca College’s campus starting at 7:30 p.m. Following that, the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers will have shows in Washington, D.C. and Cotton’s hometown of Goldsboro, North Carolina over the next three days, the latter where founder and leader Baruch Whitehead said they will appear alongside current civil rights leader Dr. William Barber, who was also born there. In addition to the May 10 performance at IC’s campus, the group will also perform at the grand opening of the new Tompkins Center for History and Culture on the same day.
One of Whitehead’s primary motivations for the trip came from a Bible verse, Mark 6:4, which quoted Jesus as saying that a prophet has honor everywhere except in their hometown. Whitehead had been mulling that quote, and decided he wanted to ensure that even though Cotton had spent much of her life away from Goldsboro, she could still receive the respect she was due in her hometown.
“I really wanted to recognize her and the town of her birth,” Whitehead said. “Often, people are not recognized locally, particularly if they’ve not been in the place for such a long time. But with her career and her legacy, I felt it was important that her hometown know about her and celebrated her life and her life’s work.”
After making that decision, Whitehead said Washington, D.C. was a natural addition to the tour, mostly because it is conveniently located about halfway between Ithaca and Goldsboro, but also due to its national significance. The more customized tour will take the place of the choir’s annual tour, which has taken them to venues as large as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and around Canada. Whitehead said he hopes to return to a national tour over the summer of 2020, which would coincide with the 10th anniversary of the choir’s founding; he said the Jubilee Singers have an invitation to perform in the Dominican Republic, which would be their farthest trip.
Reaction has been enthusiastic both from group members and from host cities, especially Goldsboro, Whitehead said. There, not only has Barber agreed to join them, but the mayor has issued a proclamation regarding the event and the city council has lent their support as well, according to Whitehead. While he knew the Jubilee Singers would be excited, Whitehead said he was pleasantly surprised by the reception of the Goldsboro locals, especially considering the group has never performed there before. It draws him back to a conclusion, something he knew during her lifetime but which has been driven home countless times in the 11 months she has been gone: Cotton is an example of someone whose memory might be able to lift Americans out of the anger and fear that dominate much of the national rhetoric currently.
“In this time in our history, we need to celebrate people who bring people together rather than pull people apart, and she certainly did that through her music and her life’s work,” Whitehead said. “Because I had such a close relationship with her, I want to do all I can to preserve her legacy.”