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Washtenaw United: Ann Arbor's Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale shares legacy of African American spirituals

Sharon Vaughters, president of the Willis C. Paterson Our Own Thing Chorale.
Our Own Thing Chorale
Sharon Vaughters, president of the Willis C. Paterson Our Own Thing Chorale.



  • M.A. The Ohio State University Higher Education Administration, Minor Counseling Psychology
  • B.M. Ohio Wesleyan University Music Education with emphasis in Pre-Music Therapy

Selected Professional Experience

  • Senior Assistant to the Dean of Students, Critical Incident Response Team Member
  • Lead Designer, University of Michigan Blavin Scholars for students who have aged out of foster care.
  • Associate Director, Project Administrator, Minority Services Coordinator, Career Services Center, University of Michigan
  • University of Michigan Diversity Council, Appointed Member Chair
  • Division of Student Affairs (DSA) Diversity Goal Group

Selected University of Michigan Teaching and Curriculum

  • Development Department of Psychology, Psychology of Career Development
  • Women’s Studies, Gender and Careers
  • Advanced Capstone in Intergroup Relations: Social Justice in the Real World
  • Project Outreach, Career Exploration and Job Skill in the Liberal Arts

Licenses and Certifications

  • Social Justice Mediation Certification
  • Licensed Counselor State of Michigan – Career Counseling and Development
  • CDC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) Training


Willis C. Paterson Our Own Thing Chorale

  • Music in the Black Church: A Kaleidoscope of Colors (2-Day Event) This is a unique collaboration born out of a desire to share African American church music beyond its traditional denominational and racial boundaries. Free and open to the public. Both events will take place at: First Congregational Church Ann Arbor, 608 East William St, Ann Arbor 48104.
    • Day 1 - Saturday, February 17 @ 8:30 AM The day will include a mix of music performances, analysis, and audience participation with a focus on organ, vocal solo and choral music. The afternoon will include a free lunch with participants and speakers. Registration is required @ www.ourownthing.org. Spaces are limited.
    • Day 2 - Sunday, February 18 @ 4:00 PM A culminating concert at First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor will offer a 'kaleidoscope' of Music in the Black Church for the appreciation of all. Special guest performers: the Brazeal Dennard Chorale of Detroit.

Our Own Thing Chorale on Facebook

Our Own Thing Chorale on X (Twitter)

Our Own Thing Chorale on YouTube


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. The theme of Black History Month this year is "African Americans and the Arts." For 50 years, the Ann Arbor-based Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale has lifted its voice to uplift the spirits of all who listen. That's what you're hearing right now. I'm David Fair, and the legacy of African American spirituals, from enslavement to modern day music, may be unparalleled in its impact, but the form has been underrecognized, and inclusions in choral and classical music spaces today have been difficult to come by. The journey and the mission keeps moving forward. And here to talk about it with us today is Sharon Vaughters. Sharon is president of the Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale. And thank you so much for making time for us today.

Sharon Vaughters: You're welcome.

David Fair: How did you first get involved in the chorale?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, I had a colleague who had been singing in the chorale for a number of years, and she consistently said, "Sharon, you need to come and see with this group! It's great!" It took about five years, but I finally went and found a group of the most amazing people and have been learning ever since.

David Fair: So, what does the music mean to you?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, that's a huge question, but it really touches me from my soul, through my intellect, through my sense of community. The music, for me, really brings me back to my youth, growing up in an African American Baptist church out East, as they say. As a child, the music was especially understood, even though I might not have been sure what was going on with the sermons and all those different things. And music just captivated me, and especially the music that probably surrounds me. It wasn't just from the front. It was all around me as people participated in the music. That was the root, and I believe that really gave me a foundation of my love for music. And I went on to study and have a bachelor's degree in music, not in vocal music, but in instrumental music, because I think that the love stuff started way back then.

David Fair: Outside of the chorale, you're also educated and degreed in counseling psychology, and you've worked in that realm. You spent time teaching or developing curriculum in psychology, women and gender studies, and you work in the arena of social justice. Is there a direct line of those parts of your life through the work you do with the chorale?

Sharon Vaughters: Yes, there is. I think that my formal education and higher education was all about social justice and life. I really have a passion for women and careers and access for people to really understand what their values are and to be able to contribute to society. So, although indirectly related to music, I think that's been a theme throughout. As I've come back into the music world, though, it's allowed me to express many things around social justice and something that's less tangible--less tangible than reading about social justice, less tangible, even then, helping students protest. It's something that defies definition and reaches people, as I make this transition from higher education back to music.

David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation with Sharon Vaughters continues on 89 one WEMU. Sharon, some of the African American spiritual songs date all the way back to the 1600s. So, as we look at it from a historical perspective, how do these songs help sustain and propel forward the African American community?

Sharon Vaughters: They served as a common ground in many ways. The sounds that are heard when we sing this music has a sense of echoing all the way back to the 1600s. I know, personally, when I hear some of this music that I did not study in my education, it just feels like home. It feels like some of the tunes and melodies that my mother sang. It reminds me of family. That kind of power of music to bring people together is such a key to any kind of social justice movement and to our survival. And so, when we do it today, when we get together and sing, it has that kind of almost mystical power to join us back to our ancestors and connect us with something that is a better way of life.

David Fair: There are certainly modern-day Black composers writing and performing music in the vein of the traditional spiritual. They're also writing and conducting modern classical pieces. And, here in 2024, getting recognition or inclusion in the conversation about the world of music still seems somewhat difficult. Why do you think that is?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, there are all sorts of barriers, I believe. I think you've hit on our mission. We would like in the future music from African American roots as part of the traditional canpn. We kind of grew up studying the dead white guys, and there is a lot to learn around that. And that music is important and is beautiful. But based on the history within the United States and the lack of resources for how the music performs, the lack of venues that will allow the music, the barriers to access to education have all played a factor in that music not reaching to that level of being a core of the study.

David Fair: So, while we as a society continue to struggle with the legacy of overt and systemic racism and the impacts that still has on achieving true equity and equality, the universal language of music has often been a way to find each other right where we are. What can we all learn from the ongoing and building legacy of the African American spiritual, particularly those of us who have not truly been indoctrinated?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, as we learn together that the key to that conversation, the fact that our ancestors were not allowed to learn language or not allowed to read or not allowed to use drums but yet still survived is a lesson in and of itself to be able to survive that kind of systemic racism and still survive today and make music that is absolutely beautiful and hopeful is another lesson that we learned, even though things seem at their worst. But music brings hope and pulls together the community, in a way, is unique to American music and the slavery that was in America.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU, and our Washtenaw United guest today serves as president of the Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale, Sharon Vaughters. And, Sharon, I mentioned that 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the chorale. How exactly are you going to celebrate the occasion?

Sharon Vaughters: Well, we've been celebrating for some time now. We hope to really revitalize and show the community again our mission, and particularly because our 50th comes right after COVID when we did not have the opportunity to sing together. And we really felt the effect of not singing together. Just coming back together and singing in person was the beginning of that celebration. But we also have been delving back into the music that was sung in the past, especially focusing on music that was written by Doctor Patterson and/or arranged by Doctor Patterson. We are building collaborations because, as a community choir, really, that's all what we're all about: that anyone can come and enjoy and learn about this music. By participating in Our Own Thing Chorale or coming to the concerts with the collaboration coming up in "Music in the Black Church: A Kaleidoscope of Colors." That will be on February 17th and 18th as a two-day free event, with Saturday being a series of lectures and workshops and performances, and a chorale reading session where we all get to sing, followed by a concert--a special concert--bringing together several groups on Sunday, February 18th at 4:00. They all are being held at First Congregational Church in Ann Arbor.

David Fair: And these are events are free and open to the public. Correct?

Sharon Vaughters: Absolutely. That's one of the things that's a hallmark of working with Our Own Thing Chorale. We really do not charge for things because we know about the economic inequities. We want to make sure that it's open to everyone. We do accept donations to help us continue to serve our mission, but you can just walk in the door and enjoy.

David Fair: As our time together wraps up for the day, I do want to ask a final question. The mission, its vision, it comes obviously from Doctor Willis C. Patterson. He founded the chorale. He was the former dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance. His impact in the community is immense, if not immeasurable, and it comes in a variety of ways. What would you like us to think about whenever we hear that name, Willis C. Patterson?

Sharon Vaughters: Oh, wow! I feel so fortunate to have crossed paths with him at this point in my life, late in life, having first being introduced to him, as a Black opera singer in "Amahl and the Night Visitors" back when I was a kid. He means excellence. He means support. He means hope. He represents excellence. And he represents a kind of a never-ending energy to bring people together and to make things a little bit better in the community.

David Fair: Well said. I thank you for your time and for sharing today, Sharon. I appreciate it.

Sharon Vaughters: You're welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

David Fair: And we are all wishing you the very best in your 50 years of celebration. That is Sharon Vaughters, the president of the Ann Arbor-based Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale. For more on the chorale and its upcoming celebratory events, visit their web page at Our Own thing.org or pay a visit to our website at wemu.org. And we'll get you linked everywhere you want and need to go. WEMU and Washtenaw United will continue to celebrate Black History Month throughout February, and we do so through our partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


This Black History Month, United Way is exploring topics, achievements, and individuals in our community that contribute to the rich history of Washtenaw County.

African American visual and performing arts have been a catalyst for telling the stories and sharing the culture of its people. In fact, the theme for Black History Month this year is “African Americans and the Arts.”

African American Spirituals, also known as Negro Spirituals, are songs of worship, resilience, and hope a better future, created by enslaved Africans in the United States. These songs date back to as early as the 1600s, and are a precursor to music genres we enjoy today, including: Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Rock, and R&B.

The Willis C. Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale, established in 1969, is named after its founder and director Willis C. Patterson, an Ann Arbor native and U-M Professor Emeritus and former associate dean. The chorale preserves, explores, performs, and educates the community about traditional African American spirituals, contemporary choral, and instrumental compositions and/or arrangements by African Americans and other musicians of the diaspora.

Several graduates have become recognized performers, teachers of the arts, and arts professionals at every level both domestically and internationally.

Learn more about African American Spirituals at: www.negrospirituals.com.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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