The National Museum of Gospel Music: A National Treasure 100 Years in the Making

The National Museum of Gospel Music: A National Treasure 100 Years in the Making

On September 26, members of the local community, including leadership from Chicago’s faith and business sectors, gathered outside of the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville to offer a blessing for the National Museum of Gospel Music, that will soon house the legacy of the “Father of Gospel Music,” Thomas Dorsey. Dorsey had been the music director at the church from 1932 until the late 1970s.

This day of reflection has undoubtedly been 100 years in the making when considering the journey of the man responsible for a music genre that continues to shape the praise and worship experience in churches all over the world.

“This will serve as a safe and friendly place for our community to come and share in our music, motivated from the sound of gospel music,” said Don Jackson, CEO of Central City Productions and founder of the Stellar Gospel Music Awards. “I’m just overjoyed at the turnout today and the blessing–that’s the first step–to get this ground blessed, sanctified and that’s been done and now we’re on our road.”

Jackson is the driving force behind this first ever museum as the founder. With the help of Pilgrim Baptist Church Board Chairman, Cynthia Jones and Alderman Pat Dowell, the 45,000-square-foot landmark is projected to be complete by 2022. 

Alderwoman Dowell said that her office has been working with Jackson and his team to make sure that the Gap Community has been accepting of this project. 

“We spent a lot of time making the connections between the development team, Don, and the community,” said Dowell. The alderwoman also said that financing still has to be put in place both on the city side, the state side, the private sector, and that close attention is being given to permitting, design issues, and any potential landmark concerns.

““We have to go through an approval process,” said Dowell. “We’re probably in the second leg of the journey, and we still have some ways to go, but the community will remain engaged, my office will remain engaged, and we’re looking forward to seeing this project take fruition.” 

Jackson hopes to see the museum serve as a safe haven for youth as visitors and contributors. 

“They can perform and record in our 500-seat auditorium and not just on the weekends,” said Jackson. “That’s what I experienced on the west side of Chicago when I was growing up, a place called the Marillac House that was run by nuns at California and Jackson.” 

Jackson says that despite gang activity in his neighborhood, he had a place to go after school, a safe space where he felt welcome. 

“That’s what we are creating here for them,” said Jackson. “I call it a living museum. That’s what we’re looking for it to be.”

Rev. Otis Moss III, Pastor Chris Harris, and Rev. Vance Henry were among the many pastors present to offer remarks. “Gospel music is still giving life to this community,” said Henry. “And helps to make Chicago a world-class city.” Henry serves as the Chief of Faith Based Initiatives for the Office of the Mayor.

The day was complete with performances by Grammy nominated artist Jason Clayborne and Sweet Holy Spirit Church with Bishop Larry Trotter. While much of the two-hour event, hosted by veteran TV journalist Merri Dee, focused on celebrating a new national treasure for the world to see, the journey of Dorsey throughout the jazz, blues, and eventually  gospel music was made clear and symbolized a remarkable moment in time. The use of a preview gallery, digital touchscreen tables, and partnerships with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s museum studies program and the University of Chicago were also mentioned as playing a vital role in creating audio and video tours of areas in Chicago that hold significance in gospel music history.

Like Jackson, Antoinette Wright, president and founding executive director of the museum, wants to see the museum remain true to its purpose of not just being a space with pictures on the wall, but of historical significance, talking about Dorsey, his writing style, how that style migrated through a whole genre of other artists that lives on in the sound of gospel as a performance art.

Wright says that the museum will provide programming that will evolve over time and be intergenerational, including lectures and even karaoke, that plays a pivotal role in embracing Chicago’s youth. 

“For us, with the national museum, we have to be able to reach the millennials and those generations moving forward,” said Wright. “I may present the history but I always like to look forward.”

Thomas Dorsey: A Grandson’s Reflection on the Past, Present, and Future

The grandson of the legendary writer, composer, and founder of gospel music was also there to witness history in the making. Thomas A. Dorsey, who carries the name of his grandfather, said that for anyone to fully comprehend the impact he has had on gospel music, you must first understand the journey of a man who once lost it all, including his family, but found the strength to carry on.

Dorsey said that his grandfather was eventually encouraged to make the trek from Atlanta to Chicago based on articles he read in the Chicago Defender about jobs for African-Americans in the north, as so many did. 

Dorsey also said that his grandfather was on his way to Philadelphia to the Navy Yards, but the train stopped in Chicago and he got off. It was in Chicago that Dorsey met the “Mother of Blues,” Ma Rainey and served as her band manager. 

“There’s a whole blues story that’s relevant to who he is and how he became an artist,” said Dorsey. “He ultimately ended up being a blues man while he was here.” 

Dorsey said that he is the product of his grandfather’s second family. In 1932, Dorsey’s first wife , Nettie Dorsey, and his newborn son died in childbirth. 

“He lost his first wife and child when he wrote the song “Precious Lord,” said Dorsey. “He wrote that out of his grief.” Dorsey said that while his grandfather had essentially lost it all and began to deteriorate, mentally, physically; even losing his ability to write, “God paused him.”

Dorsey recalls that even after his grandfather gained momentum with writing gospel music, there was ultimately no market for it. 

“He can’t sing it, no churches will let him bring it in,” said Dorsey. “So, he’s beating the pavement, walking around, trying to get folks to buy his music… it was [considered] sacrilegious at the time.”

With the assistance of the Gospel Music Channel (now UpTV), members of Congress, The Recording Academy, and the Gospel Music Association in 2008, September was declared Gospel Music Heritage Month. Dorsey was present for that inaugural day.

Dorsey said that he could only stand and pause in the halls of United States Congress and just think “Granddaddy, did you ever think it would be this big?” 

Youth, New Artists, and the Responsibility to Preserve a Legacy

When asked if youth have a responsibility to preserve the legacy of his grandfather, Dorsey said, “I think that young people have a duty to recognize it, to learn it, to remain true to it, at some degree, but things must evolve.” 

Dorsey recalled that when his grandfather started doing gospel music, it wasn’t allowed. “It wasn’t recognized, it was radical,” said Dorsey. “People were doing it on a fringe and it was new.” He went on to say that he is a firm believer in knowing the classics, understanding that which comes before you. 

Dorsey said the evolution is important and should always change and continue. “People argue all the time, “This ain’t gospel music and that ain’t gospel music,” said Dorsey. ”I can only laugh because that’s what they told my grandfather.”

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