Black History Month: I. Sherman Greene Chorale celebrates 51-years of musical excellence

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A beloved music teacher’s legacy lives on through his students – five decades later.

Isaac Sherman Greene was a beloved music teacher and director at Booker T. Washington High School for more than 40 years.

In 1972, Greene was asked to coordinate a program for a celebration of Black History Month.

“Mr. Greene assembled a choir initially comprised of his former students at Booker T.,” said Ann McInnis, a student of Greene. “We sang, and oh how we sang. Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast is what we [sang], and it was an outstanding performance. It was so good, as a matter of fact, that we wanted to stay together and continue singing together. That’s the birth of the I. Sherman Greene Chorale.”

Now at 83-years-old, she reflects on the inaugural group.

“It was wonderful to be with former students, former classmates,” McInnis said, “but even more so, just to be with Mr. Greene again.”

McInnis is proudly one of the original members. She is still singing to honor her mentor’s impact on her life, “because of who Mr. Greene was and the legacy that he left us. I thank God for the gift of music. I thank God for Mr. Greene. I thank God for the type of music that Mr. Greene taught us. We gave diverse concerts, but always classy. [From] classical Negro spirituals, to show tunes. All types of songs. That kept us going and still keeps us going. We’re still leaning on the legacy of I. Sherman Greene.”

McInnis is part of the last class to graduate from Booker T. Washington High School prior to integration.

“We encountered several instances where we were not treated as we should have been,” McInnis said. “Where our singing was enjoyed, [it] was anticipated, [it] was requested. When we arrived at the venue for the performance, [there] were requests to go through the back door. Things of that nature did occur. We had to deal with them … but we did hold our heads up high and sang.”

Ferman Covington Jr. joined the chorale shortly after the initial performance.

“My Uncle was a civil rights leader and he said, ‘You’re going to Maury. This is what we’ve been fighting for integration,'” Covington said. “We had to ride the city bus because they didn’t have school buses for us. The first day, they were standing out there [yelling] “Go home, N-word! Go home!’ I was scared to death. I didn’t go to the bathroom because they were beating us up. We’d go to the bathroom, and they would take your money. It was horrible.”

This generation of students bravely worked to integrate Norfolk Public Schools starting in 1959. Despite the ‘mass resistance’ from the Governor and white community at that time.

Hidden History: The Norfolk 17

“[Greene] had to deal with the racist teachers and racist school board,” Covington said. “It was tough, but he’d never let it get to him because he produced great music, and his choirs were all top notch. All of them.”

Covington was mentored by Greene while studying music at Norfolk State University. He was inspired by Greene to follow his example, teaching music in Suffolk for 25 years.

“He was such a great director and musician,” Covington said. “He taught me everything I know. A lot of the songs that he taught me, I used it for my schools when I started teaching. I had already done the songs with him, and I directed it just like he did because it was good. I’m with the Chorale because of him right now.”

At 74-years-old, Covington survived a stroke in the late 90s, which impacts his short-term memory, yet he said that won’t stop him from making every performance.

“I still have my voice,” he said. “I thank God that the stroke did not that affect my voice. In fact, the voice has gotten even better. I’m a great tenor.”

Dr. Lydia Toliver is directing the I. Sherman Greene Chorale continuing on the musical excellence.

“What he instilled in them meant so much to them personally that they knew they had to continue that experience,” Toliver said. “I think that that’s what legacy is really all about. You’re imparting something and hoping that something sticks, and I think they’re evidence that a lot of things stuck, a lot of great things stuck. Those stories have to continue to live on. We can’t just let them have those experiences and not share that with others. There is something pushing and motivating us to continue this legacy because it is so rich.”

This month, 10 On Your Side will pay tribute to the generations of African Americans who contributed to significant change in Virginia every Thursday night.

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