Mary Clayburn White, a pioneer of gospel radio who helped transform Baltimore's market into one of the country's largest, died of bone marrow cancer Wednesday at St. Agnes HealthCare. She was 71.
With a warm, motherly voice, Mrs. White played spirituals, conducted interviews and served as an advocate for African-Americans on several AM and FM radio stations during a career that spanned three decades.
"Back when she first started doing it, there were no 24-hour gospel stations," said Lee Michaels, who worked with her at "Heaven 600" WCAO-AM, one of two round-the-clock gospel stations in Baltimore. Seven radio stations play gospel music on weekends. "The format has really grown, and this is a tribute to her."
The Baltimore-Washington area leads the country in gospel music sales, said Mr. Michaels, program director and morning show host at WCAO.
Mary C., as Mrs. White was known, was host of gospel shows on area television stations years ago, Music to Live By and Jubilee, said her eldest son, Mark Clayburn of Lanham.
She was honored by President Richard M. Nixon and three governors, and was feted during a day in her honor in Baltimore, her family said.
She was born Mary Elizabeth Mathews, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, and brought a sermonizing style and minister's sense of mission to her radio shows after graduating from Frederick Douglass High School and attending what is now Baltimore City Community College.
In 1967, she began reading aloud articles of interest and playing gospel music on WEBB-AM. On the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, she played hymns to comfort listeners and conducted interviews, the son said.
Her longest stint on the radio was a Sunday interview and radio show for 19 years on WWIN-AM. She began each show with the song "Include Me." Among her guests was boxer Muhammad Ali, her son said. She hoped the programs would lift the spirits of listeners and prompt them to improve their lives.
"Every day, black youngsters are being influenced by what they see on TV and hear on the radio and what is going on in the community, and when people live with little hope all the time, wrong can look so right," she once told an interviewer. She retired in 1995.
Among Mrs. White's causes was seeking a cure for sickle cell anemia, a disease that affects many blacks. Mrs. White was born with the disease, and doctors told her parents that she wouldn't live past 22, her son said. She founded the Baltimore chapter of the Sickle Cell Anemia Association, which raises awareness of the disorder and funds for treatment.
The lifelong Baltimore resident regularly attended Bible classes. She was a deaconess at City Temple Baptist Church and, most recently, served on the hospitality committee and magazine at New Psalmist Baptist Church, where services were held yesterday.
In addition to her eldest son, she is survived by her husband, Frank White of Baltimore, from whom she was separated; another son, Myron Clayburn of Baltimore; a sister, Eleanor Mathews of Baltimore; and six grandchildren. Her marriage to McKinley Clayburn ended in divorce.