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Celebrate 50 years of gospel with the Northwestern Community Ensemble

Singing Black sacred music and fostering community for five decades
Northwestern Community Ensemble in 1976
Northwestern Community Ensemble in 1976

The experience of singing gospel music with the Northwestern Community Ensemble (NCE) has always brought senior Cleon Beckford closer to God as well as the Black community on campus.

“I had been singing in the church all my life, and when I got to Northwestern, I decided it would be good to continue with that, especially with a Black choir singing gospel music,” said Beckford, a native of Atlanta who joined the University’s premier gospel choir as a freshman and now serves as president of the organization.

A student choral group founded in the Black Christian music tradition on May 8, 1971, NCE is celebrating its 50-year anniversary this year.

Historical start

Charla Wilson, archivist for the Black Experience at Northwestern Libraries, curated an online exhibit looking back at the history of the organization, which came into being after the 1968 Bursar’s Office Takeover as the number of Black students at Northwestern began to increase with policy changes to address racial inequities.

NCE has been providing students a spiritual outlet to sing Black sacred music and foster community for five decades.

The choir sung at churches in Evanston and throughout Chicago and the nation. They realized their vision of organizing tours during spring break, mainly performing at member’s hometown churches and as guest choirs at other universities including Morehouse College, Allen University and Kentucky State University.

Many of the organization’s alumni have gone onto become leaders in churches across the country. The Rev. Zina Jacque, who graduated in 1977, served as pastor of the Community Church of Barrington (Ill.), obtained a doctorate in practical theology from Boston University. 

“In NCE, we found common ground as a community,” Jacque said, speaking of her time as a student at Northwestern. “You were part of this single body, which is theologically very accurate, no matter the other choice you had made that made you different. The only choice that mattered was if you had an attraction to find out, who is this Jesus?

Honoring the past

Beckford said he feels a tremendous responsibility to the generations of NCE members who paved the way.

“It means a lot that NCE has been able to sustain itself for so long,” Beckford said. “I want to make sure we are honoring what people have invested in the past, but also in this moment. The pandemic has presented a lot of challenges, and we have been thinking about ways we can be a spiritual resource and provide a sense of community during these fraught times.”

With the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association, the choir hosted a virtual concert on May 8 2021 to commemorate the anniversary. While it may not yet be safe to raise their voice on stage, current members and alumni were thankful to have the opportunity to reflect on the history of NCE and praise God.