Lucie Campbell, The Mother of Gospel Music

Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Lucie Eddie Campbell. You may not have heard of her, but “The Mother of Gospel Music” had an incredibly full life.  Lucie was the youngest of nine children born in a caboose in Duck Hill Mississippi.  Her father died in a train accident when she was only three.  Her mother, Isabella, moved the family to Memphis for better opportunities to support them as a maid and cook.  Though the family was poor with little opportunity, Isabella made sure the kids got an education and exposure to the arts.  Lucie graduated from a segregated high school as valedictorian.  She passed the teachers’ exam and taught grammar school and later, high school in American history and English.  She eventually went to college and got both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees.   In 1946, she was on the National Policy Planning Commission of the National Education Association.  She was elected vice –president of the American Teachers Association and was president of the Tennessee Teachers Association for six years.       She was an ardent activist for justice.  She worked as president of the Negro Education Association for equal pay and benefits for African American teacher.  After a long day of teaching, she defied the Memphis Jim Crow laws by refusing to relinquish a seat in the whites-only section of a streetcar a decade before Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience. When threatened and people told her they would get the sheriff, she replied, “get him.”  When the sheriff came, she made a call to someone that outranked him.  They let her go.   She finally married in 1960 at the age of 75 to her longtime companion and business partner, the Reverend C.R. Williams. While doing all that, she organized a music club that later grew to form a thousand-voice choir that performed at the National Baptist Convention.  She wrote songs for the Baptist Training Union Congress and for musical pageants.  And she continued to write and lead the music at the National Baptist Convention for years.   She introduced promising musicians such as Marian Anderson and Robert Bradley to the public.   Along with musical peers such as Thomas Dorsey and Herbert Brewster, she helped create the black gospel sound of the first half of the twentieth century and set the standards for gospel music in the black Baptist church.  She wrote over 300 songs, but only two were secular.  Both were written in 1919 addressing inequalities heaped on African American soldiers.  Her classic song, “Something Within,” is generally recognized as the first gospel hymn published by an African American woman and was a favorite in black and white gospel circles.  Her best-known hymn, “He Understands, He’ll Say ‘Well Done’” is a standard at funerals and has been noted by scholars as the second most popular black hymn behind Dorsey’s “Precious Lord”.  Today, an elementary school is named in her honor in Memphis, a home town that in years past had restricted her to second class segregation as a student and teacher.

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