This week’s BWIM blog posts will celebrate some of the great women of our history, starting with an introduction to Lucie Campbell-Williams by Courtney Lyons. Courtney is a Ph.D. student in religion at Baylor University.

Lucie Eddie Campbell-Williams (1885-1963), of Duck Hill, Mississippi, was the youngest of nine children to former slaves, Burrell and Isabella Campbell. Her father died in a train accident on his way to see his newly born Lucie, after which her mother moved their family to Memphis for more opportunities and a fresh start. Lucie graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and started teaching in public schools at age fourteen. She earned her undergraduate degree from Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi (1921), and her master’s from Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University (1951).

Lucie believed in racial equality and often refused to move from the “whites only” section of buses. She served as president of the Negro Education Association, through which she pressed the government to equalize wages and benefits for black teachers.

Lucie’s music affinity began as a young girl eavesdropping on her sister Lora’s piano lessons. In 1904, Lucie organized a Music Club that eventually became a one-thousand-voice choir. Known as “Miss Lucie,” she was elected the music director of the National Baptist Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress in Memphis in 1915. In this role, she composed songs and musical plays for the organization as well as Bible study materials, which convention delegates took back to their churches. She also used her platform to debut rising talent, including Marian Anderson, Thomas A. Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, J. Robert Bradley, and Sam Cooke. Lucie served as a spiritual leader of the National Baptist Convention through her music, which played a tremendous role in reunifying the recently-split convention, and was known to speak “with the thunder of sermons.” Many churches forbade her from speaking because of her gender. She was, however, an often-sought speaker for Women’s Days and commencements.

During the early days of gospel music, Lucie published her first song, “Something Within,” in 1919, after which she published more than one hundred songs including “Something Within” (1919), “The Lord is My Shepherd” (1921), “Heavenly Sunshine” (1928), “He’ll Understand and Say Well Done” (1933), “In the Upper Room” and “My Lord and I” (1947), and “Footprints of Jesus” (1949).

Lucie was the first woman composer of gospel music and is known as “The Mother of Gospel Music.” She combined the slow rhythm of Baptist hymns with European classical music to produce the “gospel waltz.” Her foundation helped Thomas Dorsey combine sacred music with secular music to form gospel blues. Her songs were recorded by top-selling gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson and the Davis Sisters and were also included in many songbooks published by the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.. She composed songs for over forty years, from 1919 to 1962. Her music transcended race, denomination, and generation.

In 1960 at the age of seventy-six, Lucie married her lifelong friend and associate, Rev. C. R. Williams. At the ceremony, she dedicated her song “They That Wait Upon the Lord” to her husband. Two years later, she became suddenly ill while travel to a ceremony of the National Baptist Convention, during which June 20, 1962 was declared as Lucie Campbell Appreciation Day. Lucie died six months later on January 3, 1963. She is buried in Memphis.


Further Reading:

Judith Weisenfeld and Richard Newman, This Far By Faith: Readings in African-American Women’s Religious Biography (New York: Routledge, 1996): 56-72.

Luvenia A. George and Ada Gilkey, “Lucie E. Campbell: Baptist Composer and Educator,” The Black Perspective in Music 15:1 (1987): 25-49.