"When We Send Up the Praises": Race, Identity, and Gospel Music in Augusta, Georgia

Article excerpt

James Brown, "Godfather of Soul" and social activist. The Swanee Quintet, a gospel group that in its heyday headlined at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Springfield Baptist Church, one of the oldest independent African-American Baptist churches in the United States. Paine College, an academic institution founded in 1882 in an unusual interracial effort to provide higher education for African-American students. Several centuries of African-American life in Augusta, Georgia, have been imprinted by these people and institutions, all having achieved varying degrees of fame beyond the city limits of the eastern Georgia town. Yet other African-American institutions in Augusta have also left an indelible mark on the community but are only now beginning to attract wider attention. One such institution is Augusta's local television program Parade of Quartets, a show that, since its inception as a radio program nearly sixty years ago, has broadcast African-American gospel music continuously.

In the late 1940s, two white men in Augusta's radio business began to air a program consisting of live performances by local African-American gospel quartets, along with advertisements and announcements of interest to Augusta's black community. The program, Parade of Quartets, quickly garnered a listening audience composed of both African-American and white Augustans. The program's inception, development, and impact on Augusta's black community constitutes a long and fascinating story, one that is inextricably bound to the city's tarnished history of race relations, the political plight of African Americans in the mid-twentieth century, the social significance of gospel music during the Jim Crow era, and the unique gospel music infrastructure of Augusta and neighboring South Carolina.

Black and White Photographs

Any discussion of Augusta's African-American community in the twentieth century must attempt an honest reckoning with the town's ugly history of racial tension. The historical record both reveals and reflects a city starkly divided along lines of color from the end of Reconstruction throughout much of the following century. Even now, in the early twenty-first century, the historiography of Augusta reflects a city that for much of its past has encompassed two separate worlds. For example, a collection of nostalgic, sepia-toned photographs documenting "old Augusta" was issued several years ago by Arcadia Publishing (Greene, Loehr, and Montgomery 2000). To a scholar of African-American history, the book is more notable for its omissions than for its content, as it contains almost no photographs of the African-American citizens, residences, businesses, parks, schools, churches, and cemeteries that existed mere blocks away from the elegant mansions and civic edifices pictured on the book's pages. Only a reader informed by other historical sources would know that the book documents only half of "old Augusta." In an ironic reflection of the reality of the black experience in Augusta, photographs documenting African-American life in the southern city appeared several years later in a separate "Black America Series," also published by Arcadia (Joiner and Smith 2004). The separate-but-equal photograph collections are merely emblematic of the approach demonstrated by much of the existing historiography of Augusta. Historical sources that simultaneously (if inadvertently) documented Augusta's two worlds did so with even more uncomfortable results: as recently as 1966, the Augusta Chronicle confined news of interest to the African-American community to the "colored page" (Terrell 1977, 33).

Such historiography simultaneously describes and codifies the social paradigm operative in the city from antebellum years until the late twentieth century: for all practical purposes, there have been two Augustas. A historian commenting on so-called African-American life in Augusta is faced with a dilemma: Will the methodology and presentation of data merely describe Augusta's bifurcated social schema? …