On a sunny winter morning last month, nine University of Texas at Austin students gathered on the East Mall to sing before a massive crowd celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They sang for King's fight for equality and justice. They sang for solidarity. They sang for another quiet revolutionary who years ago on the Forty Acres helped lay the foundation for their own success.
From 1956, when the university first integrated, to 1980, Almetris Marsh Duren gave black female students a place where they felt safe and welcomed. Affectionately known as "Mama Duren," she comforted and inspired students as a housemother in off-campus co-op housing and in her job as a university student development specialist and resident fellow in Jester Dorm. Duren was also integral in founding Project Info, the university's first program focused on recruiting students of color.
And in 1974, after watching students gather around the Jester Center piano to sing and dance together, Duren helped form the Innervisions of Blackness Choir. Today the choir, now called the Innervisions Gospel Choir, performs on campus and throughout the state including outreach events like the MLK Day rally.
When the members perform there is a palpable sense of camaraderie in their smiles and powerful voices. Ask any member in the group and they'll tell you that it's about so much more than singing.
"It has been wonderful being a part of Innervisions," says Allison Stinnett, a senior majoring in health promotion. "When I joined, it became kind of my refuge. When I was feeling worn out or tired of my classes, I'd come to choir, sing and blow off some steam. It's like being with family who support you and push you through hard times. I love my choir, I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Cherise Lee says that when she joined the choir, it immediately felt like a home away from home.
"With UT being such a large campus, having a smaller group of people to surround myself with has given me a sense of belonging, instead of just being one among thousands," says Lee, a junior who is double-majoring in physical culture and sports and journalism. "Beyond that, the choir has given me the opportunity to meet so many people on this campus and beyond. With each performance I'm given the opportunity to meet and interact with people that I might not have had the chance to meet by just socializing with my group of friends."
As a testament to the community Mama Duren began fostering more than 40 ago, the choir remains a vital social and spiritual outlet for its members.
"It's the one place where I can just sing, laugh and release the stresses of school," says Valencia Campbell, a social work senior who directs the choir. "Being a part of this choir has not simply benefitted my UT experience; it has molded it and made me who I am today. Without the Innervisions Gospel Choir, my college experience would have been completely different."
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