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Rev. Cora’s Gospel

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The Rev. Cora Harvey Armstrong performs at Dogwood Dell. (Photo courtesy of Martin Montgomery)

Virginia Union University recently announced a new center of study directed by Hezekiah Walker, a multi-Grammy award-winning choirmaster and recording artist, designed to teach today's students about gospel music, the sacred art form rooted in southern Black church culture. The Rev. Cora Harvey Armstrong, a VUU alumna, is one of Virginia’s most celebrated gospel artists, and her career spans 50 years and three continents. With her powerful voice and soulful piano playing, she embodies a centuries-old Black cultural tradition, preserving the art form of gospel for generations to come. 

“Traditional music, gospel music, will help you get through some stuff,” Armstrong said last summer as she prepared to perform with her family singing group at the 12th annual Gospel Music Fest in Richmond’s Dogwood Dell Amphitheatre. The concert series draws a range of professional and popular gospel artists to Virginia’s capital. It’s organized by Sheilah Belle, a Richmond journalist and midday radio host on Praise 104.7 FM. 

“Gospel music means to me an opportunity to change lives, an opportunity to impact lives,” Belle said that swampy day in August 2021 as speakers blared upbeat contemporary gospel hits and hundreds of people streamed into the space. “You just can't sing, you just can't talk, you have to live it.” 

Armstrong was born and raised in Newtown, a town of just over 1,200 in King and Queen County, Virginia. Armstrong was reared in a strict household of faith by parents who were very active in their church, First Mt. Olive Baptist. Armstrong would serve as minister of music at the church for over 40 years. 

“Everything is centered around family and the church of God. You had to go to church. There was no saying, ‘I don't feel like it today,’ or nothing like that. You're getting up and you're going out of here,” Armstrong explained. 

She came of age in the 1970s and, after high school, attended Virginia State University in Petersburg, one of the oldest historically Black colleges or universities in the country. 

“Virginia State was the first time that I had been away from home in Newtown. And so, my very first two semesters at Virginia State where I was the best student ever, until I heard the sound of rehearsal of the gospel choir one night and I fell in love with that choir,” Armstrong said. 

After eight years at Virginia State, including stints directing its internationally acclaimed gospel choir, Armstrong’s life took a turn, she said. Her focus on the church and her music wavered as she partied heartily, made questionable choices and suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her partners. 

“Every bad relationship, every black eye, every nasty word said, everything that I've had to endure through a challenge, God was right with me,” she said. “Even though I wasn't necessarily paying Him attention, He never took His hands off me because He knew that He had more for me to do.” 

As she pressed forward, Armstrong’s reputation as a seasoned gospel vocalist and pianist blossomed over the years, and she appeared frequently at churches and events across the commonwealth, including the Richmond Folk Festival and the Virginia Folklife Program. She recorded several albums, including original songs she penned and gospel standards like “Amazing Grace,” and collaborated with noted Virginia-based musicians like trumpet player and music educator Bill McGee and Earl Bynum, an award-winning songwriter, musician and co-founder of the Independent Gospel Artist Alliance and Conference. 

“She's not just a singer, she's an aunt to many, a sister to many, a mother to many, even in gospel music,” said Bynum, who invited Armstrong to tour with him in Italy in past years. “A lot of us look up to her, and she [doesn’t] even know it.” 

Though still recovering from health issues that make mobility a challenge, Armstrong’s faith is stronger than ever. So is her musical message. 

“Whatever I have to go through and live through and to witness to people about, if it helps somebody to make a better decision toward God and about themselves, I think that it's worth me being transparent,” Armstrong said. “It's worth people knowing my business and I don't mind that because it helps somebody.”   

To learn more about gospel music in Virginia, contact the Gospel Music Workshop of America’s Richmond Chapter , which offers information and choir training to central Virginia churches and organizations. 

Samantha Willis is an editorial producer at VPM, Virginia's Home for Public Media, and a journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans a decade.