Reader searches for history of mother who was a singer
Friday at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources for them to determine the value of their items. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.
Today’s question is from a reader who is interested in a genealogical search of her mother and her years with a famed radio gospel group.
I’m trying to obtain information from when my mother sang with the Wings over Jordan choir. Her name then would have been Annie Mae Amos or Cummings, joined from Houston, Texas. I also have two photographs of two of the members that were in the choir, Esther Overstreet and Cecil W. Handy (He’s actually Cecil Dandy, who like Overstreet was one of the lead singers during the 1940s). I would be more than happy to mail you a copy of the pictures, and can you see if you can find any information on my mother. Thank you very much. God bless!
What you’re asking for is a major project requiring hours of searching records in Cleveland, OH, where the choir was based; locating other sources that may have documents (and first determining where to search), interviewing family members and checking a host of other avenues. It’s the type of research that many folks conduct when trying to assemble their family history.
I wrote a blog post earlier this year that included a Q&A I conducted with a woman who offers sessions for folks interested in tracing their family history. She outlined steps to follow in trying to find relatives, but the resources may be helpful to you in learning more about your mother’s years as a Wings Over Jordan choir member.
Wings was formed by the Rev. Glenn T. Settle of Gethsemane Baptist Church in Cleveland around 1937 and lasted for more than a decade. The group could be heard every Sunday morning on the radio and in concerts across the country. Overstreet and Dandy were in the group in the 1940s, so we can assume that those were the years when your mother also performed with it. Initially, potential choir members auditioned in Cleveland, but as the numbers dwindled, auditions were held in cities where Wings performed.
Since Wings traveled all over the country, including the South and Texas, I’m sure the choir stopped in Houston, and there may have been some mention of the Houston members and perhaps the auditions in the African American-owned Houston Defender or even the mainstream Houston Chronicle. You could check their old newspaper files (if available) or the local library’s files.
In my Google research, I found one writer who told the story of the choir performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1945 for black soldiers in the segregated mess hall at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, driving them to tears as they joined in the singing. A Wings choir member recalled an incident in Houston while traveling with the group.
African American artist John Biggers used the choir’s music as inspiration for a mural he created in the 1970s for the Houston Music Hall. Biggers had founded the art department at Texas Southern University in the city in 1949, some years before the Houston City Council was urged to commission him to do the mural. The council wasn’t interested at the time, according to a 2010 book about his murals. Biggers, who was born in Gastonia, NC, recalled that his family listened to the choir at 10:30 every Sunday morning, right up to the end of the radio concert, forcing them to arrive late at church. He incorporated the energy of gospel music and jazz – along with his recollections of the quilts made by his mother and grandmother – into the mural “Quilting Party.”
Some other resources:
Case Western University has a website for the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. You could contact officials there to see if they can help or offer suggestions on where to look.
I also came across a Wings Over Jordan alumni club at Settle’s former church with contact info.
The Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland may also be able to help. Be sure to also check historical societies in Houston.
It’s very important to talk to family members who can recall those years. The best place to start searching, though, is just by doing what I did: researching via Google, jotting down any sources and following up on them. Be sure to try variations of your mother’s name. And try to enlist other family members to get involved.
Although the research can be timely, it’ll be worth it in the end if you find out more about your mother.