Sarasota is a generous place, teeming with nonprofits and volunteer power that move the needle on worthy causes and create 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 baby grand piano. Two anonymous Sarasota donors recently gifted a mint-condition Baldwin to a Mississippi church at the forefront of the civil rights movement. (Baldwins, if you're not familiar with them, were favored by musical greats like Lawrence Welk and Liberace.)
He doesn't play, but architect Juan Self, 62, is humbled by the donation. “It’s worth roughly $20,000 to $30,000," he says, and will be an anchor in the 124-year-old First Baptist Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he’s also a pastor.
Although the piano's new home is out of state, Self has ties to Sarasota as one of the architects working on the upcoming Sarasota African-American Cultural Coalition (SAACC) building, an African American arts, history and cultural center being constructed at the corner of Orange Avenue and Dr. MLK Way in Sarasota.
Self has traveled back and forth for the SAACC project since 2019, and in that time has worked with Vicki Oldham, SAACC's president and CEO, who connected the piano owners and Self after the owners surveyed area churches and found no takers for the instrument.
"The history of our church is steeped in music. We have several instruments, but not a grand piano, so we see it as the signature instrument that will let us showcase the local young talent," Self says. It's slated to reign amongst a digital piano and pipe organ.
Following the Covid pandemic that put music performances and gatherings on hold, it will act as a healing force, and "a spark to reignite our community with celebration," Self says. Local students will also be able to use it for free piano lessons in an after-school program led by the church.
The piano donors prefer to remain anonymous, but they're passionate about civil rights. The Clarksdale First Baptist Church was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, hosting pioneers like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson and even secular artists, like Sam Cooke.
At a time when Black artists were largely barred from performing at whites-only venues, "we were the largest auditorium for the Black community," Self says.
As for the SAACC, it's still in its early stages and damage from Hurricane Ian added some delays, but the historic Leonard Reid House, which will be the SAACC's first home, is expected to open early next year.
Much like First Baptist, the SAACC project will serve as a gathering place for people from all across the community and is raising funds and finalizing designs aiming to break ground within the next few years.
Self, who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary at First Baptist, says, “Music as a means of truth-telling is powerful and can be moving in so many ways. We are overwhelmed by the generosity of this donor, and so appreciative of this gift.”