by Greg Willett
In a small Catholic church in Pleven, Bulgaria, the congregation sat in silence. The Reverend Almeta Ingram-Miller and her gospel group, The Legendary Ingramettes, were told it might be a tough crowd. But as their energy and command of American gospel reverberated through the pews, exuberance took over. The power of music pushed through the barriers of language, geography, and culture. And by the end, almost everyone in the crowd was out of their seat, dancing and cheering. The audience even joined together to sing a traditional Bulgarian folk song for their guests.
This response would come as no surprise to the folks back home in Richmond, where the Ingramettes are a gospel institution. The group was formed there in the 1960s by “Mama” Maggie Ingram, the Ingramettes’ matriarch and leader for more than five decades. A single mother of five, Ingram received what IngramMiller—her daughter—describes as a “spiritual calling” to drive her children in their old Chevy from Miami, Florida, to Richmond in 1961—a risky journey through the segregated South. “Mama got a call,” from God, Ingram-Miller explains, “that if she came to Richmond and taught us all to sing we’d one day bless people all over the world.”
Maggie Ingram worked tirelessly toward this goal for more than fifty years until her death in 2015. It’s a dream Ingram-Miller kept pursuing. But the Ingramettes, while nationally recognized, had never left the United States.
That all changed in May of 2019, when the group—which now includes Maggie’s granddaughter, Cheryl Maroney Yancey, and Carrie Ann Jackson—embarked on a cultural exchange tour that took them through Bulgaria and Serbia. Organized and produced by the Virginia Folklife Program in collaboration with the American embassies in those countries, and joined by blues musician Sherman Holmes of the Holmes Brothers, the Ingramettes took part in workshops, classroom discussions, and exhibitions, and even performed on late-night television.
They came during a sensitive time. The trip occurred during the twentieth anniversary of when NATO, led by the United States, bombed Serbian military targets in Kosovo over ten weeks in 1999. The airstrikes killed hundreds, and the anniversary had rekindled raw and tragic memories—and anti-American sentiment—in the region.
“Mama got a call [from God] that if she came to Richmond and taught us all to sing we’d one day bless people all over the world.”Almeta Ingram-Miller
But in one town after another, when the Ingramettes took the stage, emotion gripped the audience. Concertgoers hugged, cried, danced, and posed for selfies. A sense of humanity and empathy permeated each performance. Kyle Scott, U.S. ambassador to Serbia, said, “Nothing that the U.S. could have brought over could have been better.”
When asked how it felt to be a cultural ambassador for the United States, Maroney Yancey replied, “It feels wonderful because I’ve never been out of my country. So to come to another country and be accepted by individuals who don’t even know me, they made me feel like ‘you’re my sister, you’re my aunt, you’re my cousin’ … it made my heart overwhelmed.”
For Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program, the international exchange highlighted the importance of the arts and humanities in bridging cultural divides. “We do this because we think the world needs it,” he said. “What we need is for people to see each other face to face. The arts are a wonderful lens for us to view one another, and they show the best of ourselves.”
The Legendary Ingramettes have been showing audiences their best selves for six decades—in Virginia, across the United States, and now, in Europe. When the Ingramettes call, the world responds.
This story was co-published with UVA Arts and appears in Volume 11 of UVA Arts magazine.
Check out the Ingramettes new album Take a Look in the Book released on March 20, 2020!