UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 11 Winter 19 Library
The Legendary Ingramettes and Sherman Holmes performed at the American College of Sofia, Bulgaria on May 21, 2019. Photo Credit:  Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities
Virginia Humanities

The Legendary Ingramettes Take the Stage with Virginia Humanities

In a small Catholic church in Pleven, Bulgaria, the congregation sat in silence. Almeta Ingram-Miller and The Legendary Ingramettes were told it might be a tough crowd. But as their energy and command of American gospel reverberated through the pews, an 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, Virginia where the Ingramettes are a gospel institution. Almeta was joined by fellow Ingramettes and family members Carrie Maroney Yancey and Carrie Ann Jackson, along with Sherman Holmes (of the Holmes Brothers) in a recent cultural exchange tour that took them through Bulgaria and Serbia. 

Hosted by the U.S. Embassies in collaboration with Virginia Humanities’ Virginia Folklife Program, the group took part in workshops, classroom discussions, exhibitions, and even a late-night television performance. 

The trip was a long time in the making. The Ingramettes started in Miami, Florida as a ministry group formed by "Mama" Maggie Ingram, their matriarch and decades-long leader. A single mother of five, Maggie received what her daughter Almeta describes as a "spiritual calling" to drive her children in their old Chevy to Richmond in 1961—a risky journey through the segregated South. "Mama got a call," Almeta explains, "that if she came to Richmond and taught us all to sing, we'd one day bless people all over the world." Upon arrival, Maggie formed the Ingramettes, a group that has now spanned three generations.

That’s the dream Maggie worked tirelessly toward for more than 50 years until her death in 2015. It’s a dream her daughter Almeta kept pursuing. The Ingramettes, while nationally recognized, had never left the United States. 

The Legendary Ingramettes perform at the Catholic Church Virgin Mary of Fatima in Pleven, Bulgaria on May 23, 2019.
(Photo: Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities)

That all changed when they arrived in Europe. They came during a sensitive time. The twentieth anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia had rekindled raw and tragic memories in the region. Anti-American sentiment lingered, and there was real tension in the air. 

But when the Ingramettes took the stage, an outpouring of emotion gripped audiences in one town after another. From hugging to crying, dancing, and posing 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."

This sense of human connection underscores a central tenet of the Virginia Folklife Program. For director Jon Lohman, 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.”

And the best is what The Legendary Ingramettes have been doing for six decades. Almeta’s journey had come full-circle, the dream had come true. From that first, humble journey out of Miami to Virginia, and now to the international stage, Maggie’s calling for her family to spread the joy of American gospel music across the globe finally had its response.

This story was also published in the Fall 2019 edition of Virginia Humanities’ Views magazine.

- Greg Willett

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