The Powers of Pauline

For more than 40 years, Pauline Wells Lewis reached out and touched the heart and soul of Baltimore. Now her gospel legacy is honored at the Pratt Library.

January 05, 2000

John Wells remembers the cold, snowy mornings, the empty, ice-slick roads. He remembers pleading with his mother to stay indoors and let someone else sit in the radio studio. But Pauline Wells Lewis, "Aunt Pauline" to generations of Baltimoreans, wouldn't hear of such talk.

"She'd say, `We better try to make it. I know I got people listening and waiting for me. We better go,' " he says. "I'd be scared to death, and she'd say, `Pray, son. We'll make it.' "

Nothing kept "Aunt Pauline" from the audience she built through years of good works and Christian charity. Her name was synonymous with gospel music. For more than 40 years her deep, fluid voice came through radios in thousands of homes, black and white.

She brought James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and others to town before they became household names. Out-of-town performers asked her to emcee their programs in Richmond, Va., Philadelphia and elsewhere. At home, no gospel program was complete without her. She brought her own crowd.

"You could't do anything without Aunt Pauline," says Roland "Joe" Smith. "She was, as the young folks say, `The Bomb.'"

Tomorrow, her rich legacy goes on display at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's main branch in downtown Baltimore. There will be traditional and contemporary gospel performances and discussions built around Pauline Wells Lewis and her dedication to black America's unique contribution to religious music.

The evening wouldn't be possible if a group of friends and gospel devotees had not claimed the papers and other memorabilia Aunt Pauline left behind. Their effort started one night a little over two years ago.

That night's idle conversation turned to Aunt Pauline. They knew she was ill. They wanted to get her on tape talking about her career. They wanted to preserve her priceless collection of items accumulated over a decades-long involvement in gospel music. In the fall of 1997, they formed the American Gospel Music Heritage Foundation.

They're hoping to find a building to house the collection, which includes trophies, plaques, unsold tickets, photographs, church fans, pieces of Aunt Pauline's extensive wardrobe. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of recordings, solid, 50-year-old 78 rpm platters, albums from the 1960s and '70s, 45 rpm singles still in the sleeves of once-popular labels such as Savoy, Richburg and Peacock. Every gospel performer sent music, hoping she'd promote their songs on "Inspiration Time." She also kept correspondence, "thank you" letters, the play list of certain programs -- everything, it seems.

"She's the glue that holds all this together. If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't pursue a foundation," says Thomas R. Roberts Sr., its president.

Early days

Gospel music was in its infancy when Pauline Lewis arrived in Baltimore in the late 1930s. She was a single mother, with two children in tow. She worked at the Empire and Legal laundries to pay her bills. Young John sold The Sun at Wilkens Avenue and Monroe Street. Every penny went into maintaining the house.

After first joining Pennsylvania Avenue Zion Church, Lewis found her way to Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church, then on Stockton Street in West Baltimore. It was small. Maybe 35 people, most of them older, showed up for Sunday worship. For Lewis, it became a home.

She and the Rev. Theodore Jackson Sr. started building the church. She organized choirs in church, and among children in the neighborhood. She called one children's choir "The Do What You Can Choir." She joined with Caleb Davis, another Gillis member, and became emcee for programs featuring groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds.

The Rev. Agnes Alston remembers Lewis from those early days. The older woman encouraged her, supported her. Lewis ironed Alston's name into her linen before the younger woman set off for Queens College in Flushing, N.Y. Lewis, who was always stylishly dressed, helped transform Alston from an 18-year-old girl who wore ankle socks into a young woman in silk stockings.

"She made me sit down and put them on. She said, `It's time for you to wear stockings,' " says Alston.

By 1942, Lewis and her sister, Sylvia, were featured performers on "The Open Heart Hour," a gospel program then on WANN in Annapolis. Soon, she was traveling around the region, meeting gospel singers and bringing them to Gillis. This was new for what was then a Methodist church.

"A lot of churches were not ready for gospel singers. They were still in the hymns and old Negro spirituals," says Alston. Churches open to visiting performers preferred gospel quartets. "They were men. Simple as that."

Lewis helped change that. She brought in Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Clara Ward Singers. It wasn't long before Gillis was known as the singing church. There was always someone singing on a Sunday afternoon. And Lewis was always there.

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