Sarasota grand piano finds new home in historic Mississippi church


Sarasota is a generous place, teeming with nonprofits and volunteers that advance good causes and build community. The gifts come in many shapes and sizes, from a 70-foot sculpture for the city of Sarasota to a few hours of volunteer cuddles for homeless cats — and now, a Baldwin grand piano. Two anonymous Sarasota donors recently donated a mint condition Baldwin to a Mississippi church at the forefront of the civil rights movement. (The Baldwins, if you don’t know them, were favored by music greats like Lawrence Welk and Liberace.)

A black Baldwin grand piano

He’s not playing, but architect Juan Self, 62, is touched by the donation. “He’s worth about $20,000 to $30,000,” he says, and will be an anchor at the 124-year-old First Baptist Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he also serves as a pastor.

Although the new piano house is out of state, Self has ties to Sarasota as one of the architects working on the next building for the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition (SAACC), an arts center, African American Historic and Cultural Center being constructed at the corner of Orange Avenue and Dr. MLK Way in Sarasota.

Self has been going back and forth for the SAACC project since 2019 and worked during this time with Vicki Oldham, President and CEO of SAACC, who connected piano owners with Self after owners surveyed churches in the region and found no buyer for the instrument.

“Our church’s history is rooted in music. We have several instruments, but not a grand piano, so we see it as the flagship instrument that will allow us to showcase young local talent,” Self says. It is expected to reign among a digital piano and a pipe organ.

Following the Covid pandemic which has suspended musical performances and gatherings, he will act as a healing force and “a spark to rekindle our community with celebration”, says Self. Local students will also be able to use it for free piano lessons as part of a church-run after-school program.

Piano donors prefer to remain anonymous, but are passionate about civil rights. Clarksdale First Baptist Church was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, welcoming pioneers like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, and even secular artists, like Sam Cooke.

At a time when black performers were largely banned from performing in white-only venues, “we were the biggest auditorium for the black community,” Self says.

As for SAACC, it is still in its infancy and damage from Hurricane Ian has added some delays, but the historic Leonard Reid House, which will be SAACC’s first home, is expected to open in early 2019. ‘next year.

Much like First Baptist, the SAACC project will serve as a gathering place for people from across the community to raise funds and finalize designs to innovate in the coming years.

Self, who recently celebrated her 25th birthday at First Baptist, said, “Music as a means of speaking the truth is powerful and can be moving in so many ways. We are overwhelmed by the generosity of this donor, and so grateful for this gift.


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