The city of Charleston was incorporated in 1783 with the motto “Aedes Mors Juraque Curat” (She guards her buildings, customs, and laws). By the 1920s members of her elite class feared that her cultural and physical landscapes were beginning to erode, so they protected her buildings through the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings (1920) and the first historic-district zoning ordinance (1931). Protecting her customs was more complicated, but a group of city leaders decided that they could contribute by collecting the spirituals that were so much a part of their surroundings. Every plantation had its own repertoire of spirituals, so the project was immense. The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals was founded in 1921 with the triple purpose of “the preservation of the Negro Spirituals and Folk Songs, the education of the rising generation in their character and rendition, and the maintenance of a social organization for the pleasure of the members.”
The society flourished, touring the East Coast with its concerts, which it performed in antebellum dress. George Gershwin consulted the society when he was working on Porgy and Bess (DuBose Heyward was a member). It even performed for President Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1931, to raise money for local blacks hard-hit by the Depression, the society published The Carolina Low-Country, which has articles and illustrations by Charlestonians. The book is certainly a period piece, but Robert W. Gordon’s article on the spiritual is still considered an important treatment of the topic. The reputation of the society, like that of the creator of “Uncle Remus,” Joel Chandler Harris, has waxed and waned through the years, but no one can deny that the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals has completely fulfilled its stated goals. The society no longer gave public concerts in the early twenty-first century, but it sold recordings and gave private concerts and continued to use its profits for charity.
Greene, Harlan. Mr. Skylark: John Bennett and the Charleston Renaissance. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
Hutchisson, James M. DuBose Heyward: A Charleston Gentleman and the World of Porgy and Bess. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. The Carolina Low-Country. New York: Macmillan, 1931.