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The Heritage Ensemble: Filling a cultural void in Peoria with music since 1999

Sharon Samuels Reed, founder of the Heritage Ensemble, with her husband, LaColis Reed Jr, awarding the Bridge Builder Award at the Juneteenth: An American Celebration.
Elijah Sansom
Heritage Ensemble's Facebook
Sharon Samuels Reed, founder of the Heritage Ensemble, with her husband, LaColis Reed Jr., awarding the Bridge Builder Award at the Juneteenth: An American Celebration.

The Heritage Ensemble has been hard at work tearing down walls and building bridges between all people since 1999 in Peoria. The music group exists to celebrate the culture and history of African Americans through music, specifically negro spirituals that were born out of one of the darkest times in American history: slavery.

Founder and artistic director of the group Sharon Samuels Reed says while other casts of performers or musicians often collaborate because of their love of performing or the artform, the Heritage Ensemble often has a bigger motivation behind their work and music. They believe it is their civic duty to expose the community to a type of music they would potentially never experience otherwise.

“Trying to show people how much richer your life can be if it’s more inclusive, and we’re still about that,” says Reed.

She said every time the group performs, they take the audience on a journey. That journey touches on slavery, to emancipation, and beyond, and so many of the musical elements that are found within these negro spirituals are the foundation of America’s music, according to Reed.

“So, the negro spiritual if you look at that tree, you’ve got the spiritual, you’ve got the gospel, you have the jazz, you have the blues, all of that makes up America's music: jazz,” Reed explains.

However, Reed believes there’s a big problem when it comes to how this history is taught in schools — or rather, the lack of teaching it at all.

“Those forms, those chords, those rhythms, all of those things … make America’s artform, yet it’s not taught that way in schools. We’re not exposed to the richness and the impact of people like me throughout everybody’s history,” Reed said.

Reed notes that this void and lack of representation was also present in the community when she first moved to Peoria from Texas.

“I was accustomed to seeing all of the wonderful things happen and be led by Black people, we were called then African Americans, and yet when I moved here, I didn’t see that same kind of emphasis if you will in the culture and the arts,” said Reed.

Reed and her husband, LaColis Reed Jr., immediately began jumping at any opportunities they could in Peoria, whether that be through sororities, churches, or friendships, in order to move a race forward. This cultural void, and a desire to use the gifts Reed was given to make the community a better place, eventually led to the birth of the Heritage Ensemble.

“And so, we’ve made it our business to enrich the cultural fabric of this community since 1999,” Reed said.

The enrichment doesn’t end at the music. In fact, much of what the ensemble does stretches far beyond the stage. Reed and the Ensemble are among one of the primary reasons Peoria now has an official Juneteenth celebration, as they have been performing a concert to recognize June 19 annually since 2000.

These concerts are much more about recognition or celebration, however. They’re about edutainment.

“Every time we take the stage, we are about the business of edutainment, and that is we entertain, but at the front of that we educate,” Reed said.

This philosophy guides much of the music that is picked out for the ensemble, with every song that is chosen having a strong text taught from a historical perspective.

“The education of everything we do begins with us, and then we tell everybody through our music how special we are, how special everybody else would be if we were included naturally, because we’re all made alike, but we’re not treated alike, and I grew up with that firsthand experience,” explains Reed.

Reed grew up in the segregated south of Paris, Texas, until her junior year of high school when she was forced to integrate. She says the way she grew up and the expectations people had or didn’t have of her shaped much of who she is today and how her life progressed. These experiences at a fairly young age made her realize some hard truths early on like,

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and we choose to be at the table, and the head of the table is just fine for me,” Reed said.

Reed’s persistence, skillfulness, talent, and leadership have not only landed her at the head of the table, but also much success and recognition within the community. She was named the 2020 ArtsPartner of the year. With February marking Black History month, she emphasizes that things worth celebrating should be continuous, not just one month out of the year.

“We’re not asking for anything except to tell the truth about how we, as Americans, all of us have played a role. A positive role and a negative role, just like all groups of people, but don’t try to designate to me a month in which everybody learns about it. Let's join hands, let's join forces and let's all learn America’s true history 365 days a year. That’s what my life has been about, and that's what the Heritage Ensemble is about, through music,” Reed said.

You can find more information about the Heritage Ensemble and their mission via their Facebook page and website.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.