Folk Fest Insider

Gospel Legend Cora Harvey Armstrong to Perform for Residents at Richmond City Justice Center

September 19, 2017

When Sarah Scarbrough looks back over the last few years at the Richmond City Justice Center, she fondly remembers three specific moments when inmates were lifted up, inspired, and encouraged by visiting performers from the Richmond Folk Festival.

“It restores some humanistic dignity,” says Sarah, Internal Program Director for the Richmond Sheriff’s Office. “Knowing that there are people in the community who care enough to send performers in and the performers themselves are taking their time to come here—that alone is so motivational for folks behind bars.”

Sherman Holmes

And, of course, everyone gets to listen to beautiful music.

In partnership with JAMinc, the Richmond Folk Festival has coordinated with the Sheriff’s Office to organize visits from multitalented Native American hip hop artist SupaMan, tap dancer extraordinaire Leonardo Sandoval, and blues master Marquise Knox. Each of the three men alternated between performing and talking, sharing important information about their own communities and their art. “We’ve had vastly different performances each year. It’s so widely enjoyed,” says Sarah. “And it provides an educational component as well.”

Cora Harvey Armstrong

Enter the woman who sings with spirit


Cora Harvey Armstrong, a legend in the gospel world and one of the founding members of the Harvey Family, now has two ways to spread the word of God. After 40 years in the music business, she’s still singing whenever she feels God is calling to her to do so, but she’s also a minister.

As a little girl, Cora played the piano, both reading music and playing by ear, and she was taught to treasure the feeling of sharing her faith by her mother, Eva Elizabeth Harvey. Cora and her sisters, Clara and Virginia, sang with their mother until her death, at which point Clarissa and Ruthy, Cora’s nieces, joined the family-based gospel group, carrying the tradition into the next generation.

To this day, Cora recalls a week-long gospel music workshop in Tokyo as one of the favorite moments of her career. The attendees, who often didn’t speak English, wanted to explore how Cora spread her gospel so effectively. “They were the most loving people I’ve ever met,” she remembers. “The last night we were there, we had more than 600 Japanese young people on the stage, and we sang gospel music. Not all of them knew what they were saying, but they had the love of God, and they expressed it even in the way they acted towards me and towards each other. It was beautiful, just beautiful.”



“with a little comedy, with a little of my own testimony, and how it could be me in there, but God was really just faithful and merciful.”

It’s this spirit of coming together and helping each other that buoys Cora Harvey Armstrong, and it’s that same spirit she plans to bring with her to her upcoming Richmond Folk Fest performance at the Richmond City Justice Center.

Art by Chris Milk HulburtWhen asked about her plan for her performances—there are two, one for the women and one for the men—she laughs and says she’ll proceed “with a little comedy, with a little of my own testimony, and how it could be me in there, but God was really just faithful and merciful.” Cora describes herself as imperfect, but as a willing tool for her Lord. Her younger years were marked by a lack of direction and a penchant for getting into trouble; she’s learned by now that all you can do is move forward, use your gifts, and learn from your mistakes.

“Music is always a way—sometimes people will listen to the song more than the sermon,” she insists. “And God blesses me to write music as well as sing the songs of others.”

The most important part, she says, is telling someone else how she was able to climb up her own hill. Maybe her story will help someone else find their way.

“Music is always a way—sometimes people will listen to the song more than the sermon,” she insists. “And God blesses me to write music as well as sing the songs of others.”

But when she gets down to brass tacks, Cora isn’t quite sure yet what she’s going to do. That’s often how she operates, waiting to see what feels right in the moment. “He uses me according to my surroundings,” she says, laughing. In fact, her attitude is one that’s so joyful, it’s hard to imagine her not bringing her natural light with her into the Richmond City Justice Center, where she strongly believes she’ll be some comfort.

“I’m glad He gives me the opportunity to go to places I’ve never even thought about going,” she explains. “It’s perfect. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s what Jesus told us we’re supposed to do: see the people who are sick and incarcerated and give them the good news.”

“I’m glad He gives me the opportunity to go to places I’ve never even thought about going,”

Cora Harvey Armstrong gave the good news last year performing in the Virginia Folklife Area at the 2016 Richmond Folk Festival, in the middle of a tropical storm. But her memories of it are much warmer than the weather was. She recounts stories of kind, patient volunteer drivers and how they brought her some Brunswick stew to warm her up. This year, she’s most looking forward to the performances at the Richmond City Justice Center, but she’s also praying that the weather will be clear, so she can take in more of the festival she still has really yet to experience outside the Folklife Area.

“I feel like I’m sitting in the back seat of a car,” Cora says when she reflects on her lifelong mission. “And the car is going down the road. And every time the car stops, I hear a voice that says ‘Get out and do what I tell you.’ And I do it for the voice, and we get in and we go again."