Memories of Aunt Pauline, gospel-music pioneer

Spotlight

October 07, 2007|By Matthew Vensel | Matthew Vensel,Sun Reporter

When it comes to gospel-music pioneers in the city of Baltimore, most everyone will know of Pauline Wells Lewis, or "Aunt Pauline," as she was known. Tens of thousands of Baltimoreans grew up listening to her gospel ministry on the radio.

"She was like the Mother Theresa of gospel," says Tommy Roberts, a friend of and driver for Lewis for more than 50 years. "Some people saw her as a mother or an aunt. She was an example, and you can't teach people how to be an example."

An exhibit dedicated to the life and work of Lewis -- provided by the American Gospel Music Heritage Foundation, which Roberts formed in Lewis' honor -- is on display as part of the "Tell Us Your Stories" gallery at the Maryland Historical Society. The exhibit ends today.

Lewis, a gospel-radio host and gospel singer, was known throughout Baltimore and Maryland as a force in gospel music beginning in the 1930s.

"She brought people like Mahalia Jackson here long before they were national names," says Anne Garside, spokeswoman for the historical society. "So her importance in the community is as a spiritual force and musical force. She was an African-American woman who had nothing but built up quite a following."

"She was a legend in this city," Garside added. "The Maryland Historical Society has been trying for over a decade to do more with the African-American community. There are so many stories of African-American men and women who overcome many disadvantages, and Aunt Pauline was one of them.

Lewis, a native of Gary, Ind., moved to Baltimore as a single mother with two children in the 1930s. She found work at two city laundries, and quickly became involved with the then-small Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church, which averaged about three dozen worshippers at its Sunday service.

Her impact on the West Baltimore church was instant. She organized choirs for it and promoted music programs in the neighborhood, all while continuing a gospel-music career of her own.

"She didn't let anything keep her from her work and the programs she was promoting," Roberts says. "She had a lot going on, but she handled it."

Lewis and her sister Sylvia Person performed gospel music together and became regulars in 1942 on a gospel show on WANN-AM in Annapolis called "The Open Heart Hour."

In 1959, Lewis parlayed her popularity into her own show on WSID-AM called "Inspiration Time." She also was the radio personality on "Chapel of the Air," which was broadcast on WSID's FM affiliate.

"She caused a lot of people to buy FM radios to hear her," Roberts says.

Lewis had a unique ear for musical talent and brought gospel performers such as Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland and Jackson to Baltimore before they hit the mainstream.

Lewis was often a guest emcee on gospel programs all over the East Coast.

"[Baltimore now has] three radio stations that play gospel, and her show was one of the first," says Aurelia White, an assistant to Lewis for 30 years. "Gospel music is respected more in the city because of her."

Lewis put on concerts featuring local and national gospel acts every year, and her anniversary concerts became so popular in the 1960s that they outgrew their familiar venue, Gillis Memorial church..

In spite of her success, Lewis remained a faithful member of Gillis Memorial for her entire life. Its congregation grew rapidly over the years thanks to Lewis, who held various positions with the church, including secretary, choir director and trustee.

"She was one of the greatest members of our congregation," says longtime Gillis pastor the Rev. Theodore Jackson Jr. "It was through her broadcast that many people came to our church."

After she retired from WSID in 1983, Lewis was quickly lured back to radio. She hosted a show on WGBR called "For Seniors." She remained on the air for another 14 years, until illness forced her from the radio for good. Lewis died on Aug. 11, 1998 at the age of 87.

"There wasn't anybody like her before her 60-year reign in Baltimore, and there hasn't been anyone like her since," says Roberts.

Although the Lewis exhibit closes today at the historical society, it will remain a part of the society and be used in its educational resource program, which is open to schoolchildren and the general public, Garside says.

The Pauline Wells Lewis exhibit runs through today at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. For admission fees and more information, call 410-685-3750 or go to www.mdhs.org.

unisun@baltsun.com

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