Feature: story of the US slave who found a home in Harrogate

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The story of a how a black slave from the US found solace in Harrogate still resonates today and now it has been turned into a one-off concert. Neil Hudson reports.

Thomas Rutling was born a slave in America, his first memory - watching his mother being sold. In later life, he gained freedom and an education and toured Europe as part of a group of musicians. It was during one of these excursions he refused to return to his ‘racist’ homeland, choosing to settle instead in Harrogate, which is where he lived out the rest of his life, dying in 1915.

Now, to mark the centenary of his death, his story is being brought to the stage and will form part of the Harrogate International Festival on July 24.

Born in 1854, Rutling was the son of a slave from Tennessee. “The very earliest thing I remember was the selling of my mother,” he recalls in his autobiography Tom.

In 1863, Union troops marched through Wilson County and announced that all slaves could consider themselves free. Rutling and his brother moved to Nashville, where they lived with their sister, who taught him basic reading and arithmetic.

He enrolled at the newly established Fisk Free Colored School and in 1872 joined the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured America and Europe to raise funds for the school.

He performed with the group for seven years and was part of their first three European tours but refused to return with them and spent the remainder of his life as a soloist and music teacher in Europe, eventually settling in Harrogate.

In 1915, he suffered a fatal stroke on the beach at Morecambe. In 2014, a plaque was erected at the house in Harrogate where he lived.

The play, Sweet Chariot: Thomas Rutling and the Road to Freedom, is being produced by the Leeds-based Geraldine Connor Foundation with the title role filled by celebrated tenor Ronald Samm, who arrives fresh from his work with English National Opera’s production of Between Worlds at the Barbican Hall in London.

Sweet Chariot will also feature The Celebration Gospel Choir and the Sons of Cedar, some of Yorkshire’s finest gospel voices and dramatised extracts from Rutling’s autobiography, performed by Leeds–based writer and performer Joe Williams.

Samm will also perform Redeemer from the late Geraldine Connor’s highly acclaimed Carnival Messiah, last seen in 2007 at Harewood House as the centrepiece for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.

Speaking about the role, he said: “It is a great pleasure to be involved in Sweet Chariot and especially to be a part of the telling of the story of Thomas Rutling.

“Along with tenors such as Roland Hayes, Thomas Rutling challenged the status quo and showed that a love of opera, the spiritual and classical music was open to everyone.

“It is important to us all we give thanks to men like Thomas Rutling whose pioneering spirit made it possible that a man such as myself could imagine and realise the dream of being an operatic tenor.”

Sharon Canavar, chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals, said: “It’s a very special year for us. We celebrate our 50th festival, so it’s tremendously apt to be delivering this landmark concert in our landmark year. Rutling’s legacy is important not just for Harrogate, but globally, so it’s hugely exciting we will showcase Rutling’s life in his hometown and help audiences rediscover this great talent.”

Amy Bere, director of the Geraldine Connor Foundation, founded in 2012 and which became a registered charity last year, said: “Sweet Chariot presents the incredible cultural significance of just one black artist on our musical and cultural landscape. Telling Rutling’s story[is what] the Geraldine Connor Foundation is all about.”

For ticket information, visit: www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/box-office