FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The University of Arkansas on Thursday announced the opening of a new center for Black music, along with a degree option for Black Sacred Music.

According to the U of A, the Arkansas Center for Black Music is possible thanks to a gift of $848,000 from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.

The center and M.M. degree will be led by Grammy Award-winning educator Jeffrey Allen Murdock, the university’s director of choral activities, an associate professor of music, and conductor of the university’s renowned Inspirational Chorale.

“Black sacred music has influenced the lives of Black Arkansans for centuries,” Murdock said. “But historically, the performance of most music of African origin hasn’t been deemed eligible for quality academic study. I’m thrilled and so appreciative of the Alice L. Walton Foundation for helping us to amplify this, and to celebrate the study of this musical tradition through the new degree and to ensure its future through the activities of the new center.”

The foundation gift will also provide start-up costs for the center and degree, including recruiting and retaining top teaching talent and prospective students, according to the release.

Murdock said the university and foundation chose the particular focus because of the U of A’s “location, existing world-class resources in Black sacred music, pledge to belonging, and commitment to leveraging these resources to expand access to the arts,” which is “essential to building better futures in society.”

Curtiss Smith, the pastor of the Historic St. James Missionary Baptist Church near the U of A in Fayetteville, lauded the center and degree’s creation.

“Most forms of authentic American music are rooted in Black music of some kind, and Black sacred music, in particular, is linked to many of the social and cultural movements in Arkansas,” he said. “These initiatives are groundbreaking here in Arkansas and in the U.S., and I’m thrilled our very own Fayetteville will be at the epicenter.”

According to the U of A, the projects are also a collaboration between the Department of Music and the African and African American Studies Program, which are both part of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.