Soon after arriving at Ohio Wesleyan for her freshman year, Marteal Pitts ’76 realized she missed the music she grew up singing in church. Then, one day before dinner in Smith Hall, she was thrilled when she heard Cheryl Smith Benefield ’74 playing familiar music on the piano, and she joined a couple of other students to sing a few favorite hymns and gospel songs.
That impromptu singalong in 1972 turned into the makings of the Gospel Lyres, a choir that became a mainstay of spiritual and social connections for a host of African American students at Ohio Wesleyan. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Gospel Lyres’ first concert performance, a reunion concert will take place during Homecoming & Family Weekend, Oct. 6–7.
Marteal says her encounter with Cheryl sparked an idea to organize OWU’s first gospel choir. Marteal and Cheryl posted flyers around campus to spread the word, and they were shocked when nearly 30 students arrived for the first meeting in the basement of Smith.
“It blew my mind,” Marteal says. “They kept coming. I had never seen that many Black students at one time on campus.”
The 1973 spring concert in Chappelear Drama Center was the culmination of months of organizing, planning, and rehearsing. As cofounders, Cheryl served as the choir’s first pianist and Marteal, who had never led a choir before, became its inaugural director.
The Gospel Lyres was “a place to belong and connect,” Cheryl says. “There was a sense of belonging and acceptance. You could utilize your God-given talents and gifts.”
The choir also provided an opportunity to bring together Black students, who were few among the total student population, Marteal says. “To sing that music was like having church. Getting lost in the harmonies and flowing with those familiar sounds was soothing. To see that camaraderie let me know there were others like me who grew up in the church. It was inspiring.”
The Gospel Lyres’ numbers and reputation grew over the years, and they branched out to perform at various Delaware churches as an unofficial OWU ambassador. The choir also performed in other cities, including Philadelphia, New York, and Cleveland, to sing. “The word on the street was that we were polished,” Marteal says.
Marteal considers her tenure with the Gospel Lyres a sacred experience. As the 50th anniversary of the first concert approached, she reached out to alumni to help her plan a reunion of the choir, although the group no longer exists at OWU today.
“I’m saddened that something that strong and vibrant fizzled out because no one had the passion for it,” Marteal says. She hopes the fall gathering will ignite interest in current students to revive the choir.
The Gospel Lyres reunion and concert will be part of Homecoming & Family Weekend, and the group is working in partnership with the committee organizing the Black Alumni Reunion for that weekend as well.
Past Gospel Lyres members—and all who are interested—are welcome to join in the singing, reunion preparation, fundraising, or other support. Please contact Marteal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homecoming & Family Weekend information is at owu.edu/HFW.
– Barbranda Lumpkins Walls ’79