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Church keeps alive Easter Rock, a tradition begun by slaves

Easter Louisiana
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In this Saturday, April 15, 2017, photo, Hattie Addison Burkhalter carries the banner during the Easter Rock at Original True Light Baptist Church in Winnsboro, La. The public was invited to attend the annual Easter vigil ceremony, Rocking to a Risen Savior, at the old plantation church Saturday. (Hannah Baldwin/The News-Star via AP)

Easter Louisiana
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HANNAH BALDWIN
Associated Press

Friday, April 21, 2017

WINNSBORO, La. — "Oh when the saints go marching in," a single voice calls out in the dimmed sanctuary of Original True Light Baptist Church in Winnsboro.

"Oh when the saints go marching in," a dozen voices echo.

The hymn continues a cappella with Emma Hagan calling it and the voices responding.

More than a dozen women, girls and boys dressed in white enter the sanctuary carrying kerosene lamps. Moving counter-clockwise around a table at the center of the church, they place the 12 lamps down the center of it. On either side of the lamps, they place six cakes.

The 12 lamps represent the tribes of Israel; the 12 cakes represent the disciples; the table represents Christ's tomb; the white tablecloth and white clothing represent purity, writes Louisiana Tech University folklorist Susan Roach in her essay, "'Everyone Rockin' Together:' Continuity and Creativity in the Louisiana Delta Easter Rock."

Setting the table is the beginning of the Easter Rock, an Easter eve ritual that pre-dates the Civil War. It developed among enslaved Africans who combined African traditions, such as the counter-clockwise movement of the rock, with Baptist traditions such as Easter. Scholars refer to similar rituals as ring shouts. In the Delta, however, they are called rocks.

Although it was once common throughout the Mississippi Delta of northeastern Louisiana, the Winnsboro Easter Rock is the last one known to exist.

Its longevity is thanks to Hattie Addison Burkhalter, who started rocking when she was 6. Now in her 60s, she learned from her grandmother, Eliza White, and her mother, Ellen Addison. Addison was a member of Original True Light Baptist Church.

The church itself is significant. It sits along Louisiana 4, right outside downtown Winnsboro in Franklin Parish. It was a plantation church and is at least 100 years old. The building needs repairs. There's a hole in the ceiling through which it rained during the rock on Saturday.

After the rockers set the table, Burkhalter retrieves a circular cross covered with crepe paper streamers from a room off the church's entry way. The cross is called the banner. She rejoins the rockers, moving the banner up and down as her daughter Laketa Addison Levy pulls strings attached to it to help support it.

The worshippers rock side to side, hopping laterally and stomping on the wooden floor as they begin to sing "O David."

"Tell me what's the matter now/O David/I believe I said my prayers/O David."

The church's hardwood floor is an integral part of the rock. As the rockers stomp, the floor shakes and creates a drumming effect.

"When you hear that, that's when they've got it going," Burkhalter said.

In the past few years, the Easter Rock has been held at the town hall and the Princess Theatre when the church was unavailable. The Winnsboro Easter Rock also travels to festivals to perform, including the New Orleans Jazz Fest and the Natchitoches-Northwestern State University Folklife Festival. They've also performed on the National Mall in Washington during the 1997 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.

Roach found out about Winnsboro Easter Rock in the early 1990s. She was an instructor at the Delta Folklife Field School in 1993, which trained community scholars to conduct fieldwork to document folk traditions in the region.

Annie Stewart Staten was one of those students.

Staten said she mentioned to a first cousin at a family funeral on Good Friday in 1994 that she wanted to find out if Easter Rock still existed. Her cousin, R.B. Kelly, said he'd grown up rocking. Staten got in touch with Burkhalter and attended Easter Rock for the first time that year. She continues to go every chance she gets.

Staten said the tradition is unique to northeastern Louisiana.

"I never interviewed anyone outside the Delta who knew anything about it," she said.

Roach has documented the rock since 1994. She wrote about it in the anthology Delta Pieces, a series of essays about folk traditions in Louisiana.

Burkhalter has kept it going through a lot. Her mother died a few years ago and she recently lost a daughter.

"I enjoy it and it's spiritual and I want to keep it going because I want to keep my mother and grandmother's tradition going," Burkhalter said.

Worshippers at Saturday's Easter Rock ranged in age from Burkhalter's 4-year-old grandson who is learning to rock to her 102-year-old husband whose arthritis prevents him from rocking anymore. He still sings for part of the devotional that precedes the rock.

Levy said she plans to take over coordinating the rock when her mother is no longer able. Her 11- and 13-year-old daughters rock, too. Training young people, including relatives, to rock is part of keeping the tradition alive.

Kids have to learn how to rock properly and take the ritual seriously.

"It's nothing to play with. We do this as a spiritual thing," Levy said.

"If you know what you are rocking to, it makes you feel real good," Burkhalter said.

Knowing that they are "rocking to a risen Savior" makes the ritual meaningful.

Burkhalter, who is not a member of Original True Light Baptist Church, said she plans to start supporting the church financially so it can be maintained and Easter Rock can continue there.

Toward the end of the rock, everybody is invited to join in. Some of the worshippers take pictures and film videos on their cellphones. Deterrius "DJ" Johnson, 16, takes a break from rocking and sits in the audience. He calls song and the rockers respond. When the song ends, they serve the cakes.

"(Easter Rock) is part of our history, our culture and if we don't preserve our culture, who's going to do it for us?" Staten said.

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