Southern gospel and black history

As Black History month begins, this note from new reader WM seems timely:

Thanks for an excellent blog. I only just discovered you by accident and have enjoyed wandering through several discussion threads.

There is a point of irony, however, in your description of Southern Gospel as “white” gospel music.

I actually stumbled upon your site while researching Doris Akers (an African-American who worked with both Mahalia Jackson and Bill Gaither) in preparation for Black History Month.

Last year I asked some of the older, white gospel singers in our church to sing special songs by Thomas Dorsey and Charles Tindlay. They were delighted to be asked to perform their favorites but seemed utterly stunned when they learned they were performing as a part of the Black History Month emphasis. They simply had no idea where their best loved songs originated.

One of the evils of “Segregation” in the 20th-Century South was that it drove successful black gospel musicians to New York, Chicago, and L.A.–where they continued to spread the Word by creating a style perhaps better described as “Urban Gospel.”

However, we cannot hope to recapture or understand the heritage of Southern Gospel without recognizing the influence that the children of African slaves had upon our words, rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. (And if you take those away, there’s not much left!)

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  1. ST wrote:

    Just a couple of days ago, I stopped in O’Charleys in Villa Rica, GA. They had a picture of a historic plaque that is displayed in downtown Villa Rica. It tells the story of Thomas A. Dorsey who was born in Villa Rica and moved to Chicago. His title underneath his name is “The Father of Gospel.”

    Thomas Dorsey wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.” He wrote others, but these were his most popular songs. He was known for his blues gospel writing. Reviewing the words in these songs makes you realize why it was referred to as blues gospel.

    The manager and I talked about this plaque which she had never read until she saw me take the time to read it. She then directed me to another part of O’Charleys which displayed a picture of Thomas A. Dorsey.

    It was quite interesting. But it is really ironic that a couple of days later you posted this blog.

  2. Jeff Cleghorn wrote:

    Uh…….I believe Doris Akers was on a couple of the early Gaither videos. If, in fact, she was an African-American as this post states, she was the palest one I’ve ever seen. I believe that she was actually white!!

  3. Jeff Cleghorn wrote:

    Well, I feel like a complete idiot. But, after posting #2 before I went to bed last night, I started thinking about it. So, I got up this morning and googled “Doris Akers” and found that she was INDEED an African-American. I still maintain that she appeared to be white on those early Homecoming videos. Oh well.

  4. RR wrote:

    Doris Akers did have very light skin, but her music had that wonderful African-American feel that so many of us love.

    I have heard that Teddy Huffam (Teddy Huffam & The Gems) was her nephew.

  5. Jim E. Davis wrote:

    Hmmm. I thought she was white also. That’s what I love about this blog - I always learn something. Here is a link to a discussion of this same subject on another southern gospel site.

  6. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Don’t feel bad. I also thought Akers was an unusually soulful white women.

  7. BUICK wrote:

    This gives me an opportunity to ask two questions.
    1) Were the Imperials the first SG group to be integrated/bi-racial white and African American? (I’m thinking of Sherman Andrus)
    2) On a previous post on AVFL, someone had made the comment that Big Chief Weatherington was African American. I’d never heard that. I hadn’t even thought about it. Does anyone know if this is true? Was the “Chief” nickname just to throw us off in those days of even greater segregation and discrimination?

  8. John Crenshaw wrote:

    I don’t know if you would consider them “southern gospel”, but there was a group called the “Mariners” that was an integrated group. I think the Imperials were the first top tier group to be integrated.

  9. Chuck Peters wrote:

    The Singing Americans once did a song called “Black & White.” Does that count for anything?

  10. Sam H wrote:

    #7 Buick-

    “Chief” was of Cherokee ancestry. Leroy Abernathy named him “The Big Chief” when first meeting him due to his stature and dark complexion. Check out David Taylor’s excellent history of the Statesmen called “Happy Rhythm” pp34-35 for the story.

  11. Payton wrote:


  12. BUICK wrote:

    I hesitated to ask the question because I figured someone would spin the question into a racist and bigoted inquiry. The fact is, I care. I care because it might have been a sign of an early breach in the racial barrier. I would have been thrilled to learn that so long ago, some did not consider race to be something that would disqualify a person of talent. I would understand that Hovie might have had to downplay (or even hide) such a bold move because some churches and church members would not be tolerant enough to accept a talented bass singer who was African American (or “Negro” as the term of the day would have been). So I asked because I thought that if true, this was a laudable decision on the part of Hovie and the Statesmen. I care and that’s why I care. Okay with you, Payton?

  13. matureman wrote:

    Google Thomas Dorsey and you’ll see him sing and talk about his career. It was wonderful to see and hear an important historical figure from well in the past.

    When we get to Heaven, we may find that everyone there is Black.

    Thank you, Father, for Mr. Dorsey and his contribution to Gospel Music.

  14. matureman wrote:

    Sorry! I meant to say… You Tube Mr. Dorsey.

  15. Rev. I.C. Allyall wrote:

    “When we get to Heaven, we may find that everyone there is Black.”

    Actually, when we get to Heaven, we will likely find that no one has eyes to distinguish color. Boy, that would ruin half the songs in SG. And what if there are no physical scars for us to touch, and no singing angels, and no literal River of Life to dangle our feet in? Wait, no feet! No cabins in any of the Foursquares, or no calendars to count the ages. . . if this is the case, will SG singers even want to go?

  16. Grave Digger wrote:

    BUICK, if this is allowed, email me privately.

  17. Derek wrote:

    Count me among those who thought Doris Akers was white! I probably had hear that Dorsey was black but didn’t remember it. Personally, I don’t care what color they are or what hairstyle they have, if it’s a good song that’s all that matters. God uses whom he wishes! Reminds me of a funny story my Mother told me about Charley Pride. She worked in the sewing factory when he first came out, and when one of the mechanics at the factory was told he was black he quickly replied, “That ain’t no negro, that’s Charley Pride!”

  18. cdguy wrote:

    Derek, you mentioned Charlie Pride. . . He tells that when his music first became popular, he was not allowed to play some auditoriums he had been booked into, because of his color. The promoter had booked him without knowing he wasn’t as “white” as he sounded.

    This, of course, happened primarily in the South, about the same time black pop stars in the North could sing in concerts, but only to a white audience. Blacks were not allowed into the audience, even though there were blacks on stage.

  19. steve wrote:

    An interesting movie was made about black gospel approx. 20 years ago call “Say Amen
    Sombody.” Mr. Dorsey was alive at the time this movie was made and he was featured prominently in it. If you have 90 minutes it is worthwhile watching.

  20. J wrote:

    Thats why I love Bluegrass, no one can lay claim whether justified or not to that but us. I am growing rather weary of nothing being ours. Everything anymore came from some place else besides the USA.

  21. BUICK wrote:

    Bluegrass music owes a debt to Celtic influences. Bluegrass music can sound a lot like the music of the highlands of Scotland and the music of Ireland. But that makes sense because Appalachia was settled by a lot of Scots and Irish.

    SG was heavily influenced by Negro spirituals and other African American music.

    CC was shaped by both Celtic and by folk music.

    There’s nothing new under the sun…even in music. (Although Polka may be close to unique…as per a different thread on this website.)

  22. J wrote:

    Yeah but the Celtics dont go around telling us that all the time…Celtic is good.

  23. Trent wrote:

    Doris Akers was white? You’ve got to be kidding me. The next thing you know, someone will be saying that Michael Jackson is black.

  24. cdguy wrote:

    There is a nice salute to Doris Akers in the current issue of “Homecoming Magazine”. It doesn’t come right out and say she’s African-American, but it does allude to her background in black church choir music. By the picture of Ms Akers accompaning the article, it’s easy to see why many might not have been aware she was African-American. Very light skin.

    I guess this is just another example of how great songs can transcend our prejudices and man-made barriers.

  25. WillBravo wrote:

    Having grown up in the last throes of the Jim Crow south, I found it delightfully ironic that my segregationist Dad included in his LP collection - right alongside The Statesmen, Blackwoods, Sons of the Pioneers - Miss Akers and the Sky Pilot Choir.

    Similarly to some of the above, I, too, was a little shocked to see her appearance on the Gaither videos since she’d aged (gained a little weight) and gotten very light complected. With the advent of ebay, I was able to round out my collection - including several cuts where her backup group features Tony the Tiger singing bass.

    But back to Hovie. Some of you might not know that The Statesmen cut an album *backing* Doris Akers in the lead… maybe 1964? Her vocals are some of the cleanest, clearest and smoothest I’ve ever heard… kind of like what Ella would have sounded like had she done gospel. (I’m just assuming that she didn’t or at least I’ve never heard it.)

  26. SoGospelGuy wrote:

    WillBravo, as someone who worked around The Statesmen and knew Doris, Chief and most of the people mentioned in this blog, I agree that Doris was often overlooked and was extremely talented as both a singer, and a songwriter. She was in fact had the same roots, as one parent of a very famous Bass Singer who spent his career hiding his background under a different persuasion. Perhaps this is why he and Doris were so very close through the years, I don’t know. Unfortunately, in the 50’s and 60’s having a Black member of a headlining SG group would have been something that just couldn’t have happened, trust me. Plus, a participant in Southern Gospel from the late 60’s through the Gaither 90’s I would say that sadly, SG is still not a very “open minded” group concerning racial topics. In fact they have always been just the opposite. As to Sherman being the first Black singer to merge into a SG headliner, yes he was. In fact Sherman was an extremely talented singer and when Roger left the Imps, Terry took the opportunity to audition and then move the group forward by the addition of Sherm.

  27. Linn wrote:

    did Doris Akers ever marry, or have kids? just curious because its so HARD to find any info on her… :-(

  28. Shelly Matney Bell wrote:

    Concerning Doris Akers…I may be able to help. I sing in a group called the Matney Sisters and we have done many workshops with the group “Psalms” out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This group is made up of the nieces and nephews of Doris. I recently spoke with a man that said that Doris Akers was white…as he, too, saw her on the Gaither programs. I corrected him and told him about me knowing her relatives. I have been online trying to find out more information about her. Those who want to find out more information on her might Google onto the Iowa Arts Council sights…and type in their name….Psalms. I’m not for sure if they are singing together right now…but I am positive you could find a contact number through the Iowa Arts Council avenue.

  29. Shelly wrote:

    I wanted to add that I just found a sight on Iowa Folklife that was good and gave some sound bites of Psalms. Good group…it was an honor to sing with them. Our workshops mainly showcased the differences of our music…sometimes singing the SAME music…but in such different styles. We both taught harmony workshops together displaying the differences.

  30. Deborah wrote:

    To set the record straight, my Great Aunt Doris was a Beautiful light skinned Black American. I am light skinned too, she was a very talented woman, who gave to the world wonderful music to lead people of all races to Christ. She came from a very talented musical family. She was married to her work for the Lord, her children were all of God’s children. She has family scattered all over the US.

  31. E wrote:

    Too funny I remember saying to Aunt Doe when I was real young that some one didn’t believe she was my aunt and I couldn’t figure out why. Kids and music are color blind. When I got older I asked her why she didn’t pass she would have made lots more money. She simply said I would not be able to claim my beautiful great niece. Our famly like most African American families is an array of colors. I am not light skinned but caramel brown.

    Psalms had a set back as the founder my cousin Sharilyn “Beady” Bell passed away. I think they will resume singing soon.

  32. Laney wrote:

    Is this Deborah Parker? Funny stuff about Aunt Doe being white huh?

    Psalms had a bit of a setback as the founder Sharilyn “Beady” Bell passed away from cancer a couple years ago.

  33. revsput wrote:

    This is for the young lady related to Doris Akers. I am a descendant of Henry Clay Akers, who happen to be my great grandfather. I believe he was related to Doris. I was told that I had relatives from Brookfield, Brunswick and Dalton, Missouri. We are having a family reunion in Lexington, Missouri of the Bruce-Akers Family on August 7-9, 2009. Doris looks a lot like my late aunt Effie Akers-Boldridge.

  34. David wrote:

    Sorry for such a belated response, but I just Googled Doris Akers and stumbled in to this web site. Thought I would add a comment about Sherman and the Imperials…

    For several years b4 Sherman signed on with the Imperials he was a lead singer with Andra’e Crouch (and the Disciples). While that group could be classified as virtually “Black”, they performed as much if not more in “White” settings as in “Black”.

    There are many factors which could help explain the attraction of “Whites” - not the least of which was just the incredible talent of Andrae’, Sherman, and each one in the group.

    But another factor is that Andrae’ started that group while he was the music director at Los Angeles Teen Challenge. Andrae’ not only led the chair and played the piano, but he counseled and prayed for all the guys in this drug rehab program. So the “Cross & the Switchblade” book and movie fame, and the wonderful transformation God was doing in so many lives that previously we so waisted… all helped open doors across denominational and ethnic lines.

  35. Jon wrote:

    Ok…I am African American and grew up admiring Doris Akers but I will tell you that I have to chime in with one of the Davids earlier….I always had that sneaking suspicion that she was one of the most soulful white women I knew!! ;-)

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