The Singing Window of Tuskegee
A visual retelling of the African American experience in stained glass.
by Cynthia Staples
In 1932, artist Katherine Lamb Tait was commissioned to design a window for the newly renovated chapel at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee President Robert R. Moton proposed that Lamb use as a design motif 11 songs most often described as Negro spirituals. Tuskegee had been a lead institution in preserving and celebrating these songs borne out of slavery. Lamb would combine words and images to stunning effect.
The Singing Window, as it came to be known, was inspired by music that had both emerged from and been adopted by a people struggling to survive bondage in a foreign land. The window was designed during a transitional period in stained glass making. “The day when we merely told a Bible story in glass is gone,” Lamb would say in 1934. “Though of course we’ll never lose the basic religious significance.”
The 11 songs include: “Go Down, Moses, Way Down in Egypt Land,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Deep River, My Home is Over Jordan,” “My Lord, What a Mornin’ When the Stars Begin to Fall, “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho, and the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down,” “We are Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder,” “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” “Oh, Sing All the Way, Sing All the Way, Hear the Angels Singing,” “Steal Away, Steal Away, Steal Away to Jesus,” “Going’ to Shout All Over God’s Heaven,” and “Rise Up, Shepherds, an’ Follow de Star of Bethlehem.”
Like the lyrics of the spirituals, the imagery in the glass combined secular and religious themes to tell stories that were both painfully and powerfully timeless. It was a visual retelling of the African American experience.
In April 1933, during the dedication ceremony of the chapel, the choir sang all 11 songs while standing beneath the windows. Tuskegee’s Reverend George L. Imes then guided a diverse audience made up of students, alumni, philanthropists and others through the history so colorfully depicted and explained how that history was the foundation upon which African Americans were building a brighter future.
In 1957, the chapel, including the windows, was destroyed by fire. Thankfully, Lamb’s designs had been preserved. When a new chapel was built between 1967-1969, its interior included the Singing Window.
That window can be seen during self-guided and guided tours that take place at the historic campus. If you are unable to visit Tuskegee in person, the windows can be viewed online thanks to Carol M. Highsmith. A noted photographer, she has made these images, and so many more, copyright free and accessible to all via the Carol M. Highsmith Archives in the Library of Congress Prints & Photography Online Catalog.
Tour information can be found here, and Highsmith’s images can be found here.
Photo Credits: The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Cynthia Staples lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. She grew up in Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, an experience that continues to influence her writing and photography. Follow her creative journey here.