Founder’s Song Silenced

With his students singing everything from Bach to hip-hop and globetrotting from Harlem to Japan, Dr. Walter J. Turnbull, founder of the internationally acclaimed Boys Choir of Harlem, built a triumphant franchise that is now struggling to survive. Turnbull, 62, died March 23, of complications from cancer and a stroke.

Turnbull used his own money to start the choir in 1968 in New York City. The choir quickly grew, teaching young boys and girls from Harlem the benefit of discipline and hard work. In 1993, Turnbull partnered with the New York City Department of Education to open the Choir Academy of Harlem, a school whose curriculum was based on Boys Choir of Harlem philosophy and methodology.

David N. Dinkins, former New York City mayor and newly elected BCH board chair, points out that the school excelled academically. “[The choir academy] did better than the citywide average in graduation rates,” says Dinkins, crediting Turnbull. “He had the capacity to instill in young people and their parents that they can achieve anything–and they did.”

Despite the successes of the choir and academy, Turnbull came under fire for not immediately reporting a student’s charge of sexual abuse by a Boys Choir of Harlem employee in 2001. The choir took a direct financial hit, and the city of New York severed its ties, evicting the choir from the academy building.
“The media tried to define Dr. Turnbull as this bad person who didn’t know what he was doing after 35 years of positively affecting over 7,000 lives and certainly representing this city, country, and our community particularly well,” says his brother, Horace Turnbull.

Despite the efforts of Dinkins, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), and former President Bill Clinton, the future of the BCH is in jeopardy as a result of unresolved debt, reduced staff, and lagging financial support. The Choir Academy of Harlem has partnered with St. Hope Academy, a nonprofit started by former NBA player Kevin Johnson, to help revitalize the struggling 500-student K-12 public school.

“He started with nothing,” says Terrance Wright, former member, assistant conductor, and choreographer for the BCH, referring to Turnbull’s upbringing in extreme poverty. “It seems we’re back at the same place with nothing.”