Stillman College, the historically Black college founded in 1870, has an ambassador extraordinaire: its choir, which tours across the country and often brings its audiences to tears. Its performances have changed lives.

Bob Herrema still remembers a performance of the Messiah in 1969, when he and a fellow church member organized a combined performance, with the Stillman Choir and string students from the University of Alabama. Before Herrema raised his baton, he turned to look at the audience – and saw Stillman’s Brown Chapel filled with faces of all colors. Before the performance was over, some would be in tears.

Stillman College choir in robes sing onstage
The Stillman College choir performs. Credit: Stillman College

“Stillman turned out to have an impact for the rest of my life,” he says. Herrema, who is white, had arrived at the school to take the job knowing how good the music of the Black tradition was. He left knowing how easily people could connect across race through music, and how much they would be moved by the connection. For the rest of his long career as a professor and a chorus leader, most of it in Pennsylvania, he incorporated composers like Moses Hogan in the repertoire.

The choir’s power has resonated many times over the years for others, says Jocqueline Richardson, an alumna and the choir’s director. “When we sang Somebody’s Praying – when we sang that in St. Charles, a church that was in Hurricane Katrina, you understand, the members were crying.”

There are about 40 choir members; a more select group tours each year. Richardson ticks off other performances that were meaningful, including one in the church where former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is a member. The choir’s tour of churches near San Francisco included performances of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, O Freedom, and I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, among others.

The repertoire, she believes, is key. It consists of, among many others, Handel’s Messiah and Ernani Aguiar’s Salmo 150, and spirituals arranged by William Dawson and Moses Hogan. The choir has the diction, talent and passion to move across the traditions and give each one equal weight.

Charlie Mitchell, a student in the 1970s, went on to get a PhD in music and became a music leader, now in Louisville, Kentucky. Herrema remembers him as a tall, lanky young man, with his sleeves too short. “I found him at the piano one day, saying “This is the music I want to play,” remembers Herrema, who introduced the choir to such hymns as Give Ear To My Word – a phrase Mitchell remembers to this day as foreign to his.


Watch the Stillman Choir perform at Westminster Presbyterian Church – Birmingham, Ala., February 3, 2019

Today, Mitchell, who is an organist, plays Bach in the same performances as Ulysses Kaye. At a performance in southern Indiana, he focused on the work of composers from the African diaspora, such as Ulysses Kaye, Florence Price and Fela Sowanda. A nationally known organist came up to him afterwards, and somewhat stiffly, but warmly, said the concert had been “well received.”

“I figured I’d arrived then,” says Mitchell with a laugh. “I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama. My people were farmers. The choir at Stillman and the touring we did … singing in those churches, listening to the organ, showed me what you could do with music.”


Learn more about Stillman College, and how it’s working with investment and development firms to use real estate assets to generate revenue, catalyze economic development in underserved areas, and provide workforce training for their student populations in Part 2 of our Impact in Action series, Untapped Assets: Stillman College And The Landscape Of HBCUs.


As COVID-19 moves through the United States, our divisions are cast into stark relief. We are separated by politics, geography, race and class. Against this backdrop, higher-education institutions can be their communities’ strongest anchors, keeping people moored to a space – physical or virtual – in which they interact and find what they share, instead of what divides them.

Next week, we launch “Impact In Action: Profiles of Higher Education,” a series exploring how three innovative higher-education institutions, Rowan University, Stillman College and University of Virginia-Wise, help produce impact-centered economic development in low-income and overlooked communities. “Everything boils down to resources,” Ali Houshmand, the president of Rowan University, told us. “Our first instinct is survival. Once we survive, we want to do better. How do we turn an institution that was reactive into one that is moving forward?”

“That, to me, is fundamental.”

These three profiles,

contain ideas and context for impact investors looking for trusted partners and high-leverage opportunities in the current fraught environment. They also offer higher education decision-makers insight into their peers’ actions to support low-income and overlooked communities while establishing new partnerships that help maintain institutions’ financial bottom lines. Collectively these post-pandemic stories underscore the three lessons featured in our Assets For Impact Insights Report.

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’”  

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet,’” said Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA-Wise. “Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.”

This project began before the pandemic and, obviously, ended in a different place because of it. We set out early in the year to look at the role of higher-education institutions working in an area that has been a media lightning rod: Opportunity Zone development. Tax breaks passed in 2016, under the Trump Administration, have been used by wealthy developers to create projects that likely could have been financed in the private markets.

Yet, a deeper narrative has evolved in Opportunity Zones – one that is missed in the politicized media. Some communities are turning the legislation to its overt purpose to propel development in low-income communities. In many cases, higher education institutions are at the center of those positive developments. We are, for instance, seeing OZ projects evolve slowly, with the help of higher education institutions, in Baltimore, Kannapolis, North Carolina and Merced, California, as well as the highlands of Appalachia, the West Side of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and in Glassboro, New Jersey. The latter three are covered in this series of profiles, produced as a collaboration between Lumina Foundation and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, with research and writing by Times of Entrepreneurship.

The Beeck Center was a leader in establishing the Guiding Principles and Reporting Framework for Opportunity Zones. These guiding principles include: community engagement, equity, transparency, measurement, and outcomes. Successfully investing requires careful attention to existing community assets, needs and priorities. Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available for all. Times of Entrepreneurship explores the way deep innovation can propel communities and individuals.  For all involved, a clear approach guided by a shared set of principles and implemented through a common and flexible framework is critical. 

At the Beeck Center our goal is to capitalize on the investment and work to-date to catalyze non-traditional partnerships within our network of influential investors, community intermediaries, government officials and foundations to help scale efforts and develop guiding principles, tactics and resources to empower businesses and organizations to align their assets to respond to the immediate community needs as well as to ensure an equitable economic recovery and sustained community investment post COVID-19.

As the pandemic evolved, we felt responsible to look deeper into higher education institutions’ role as anchors in low-income communities. The pandemic and the economic recession are devastating the most vulnerable people. Institutions cannot afford to put their own futures at risk. The role they play in those selfsame communities is too important.

Thus, the focus of our profiles became how these three leading institutions innovate to find paths forward that benefit the low-income communities that rely on them. These profiles are not about trade-offs. They’re about long-term strategy even in the face of short-term pressure. The long-term strategies usually rely on partnerships that benefit low-income communities and strengthen the institutions. The institutions’ well-being is tied deeply, then, to the health of low-income communities that are part of its world.

As Cynthia Warrick, the president of Stillman College, told us: “it’s hard to turn your back on poor children.” 

These institutions didn’t – and find themselves stronger because of those decisions.