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'It Doesn't Apologize for Using the Name of Jesus:' New Museum to Celebrate History of Gospel Music


Thomas Dorsey first helped popularize black gospel music in the 1930's. The son of a Baptist preacher, Dorsey combined shouts of praise and emotional fervor with a contemporary style.

Whether swaying with gospel choirs, tapping along with quartets, or simply raising hands to the rhythm of soul-stirring songs, gospel music can be seen and heard throughout black America.

Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago is ground zero for gospel music, the place where Dorsey first introduced the sound.

"Chicago has been known as the birthplace of gospel music primarily because when the great migration took place in 1926 and blacks came from Mississippi areas like that to Chicago," said Don Jackson of Central City Productions. "It was a time when they had all of the blues and the R&B places on the southside and that's where the majority of the churches were. It was a city within a city, and so Thomas Dorsey and that sound in Pilgrim grew."

Jackson, who is also founder of the Stellar Gospel Music Awards, is the mind and power behind the new National Museum of Gospel Music.

He sees gospel music as the foundation of faith for many in the black community.

"We go to church more than any other segment of our population because that's what we need — those positive messages for the single moms, poverty-stricken areas," explained Jackson. "What drives those churches mostly is the inspirational music that happens to be gospel music."

He continued, "One thing I like about it is the music itself — it doesn't apologize for using the name of Jesus."

The building where the museum will stand has its own story. It began as a synagogue, then Pilgrim Baptist, and in 2006 it was destroyed by a fire. The shell still stands and will be transformed into the museum.

"I was invited out to the site just to observe, and Pilgrim was trying to rebuild it as a church," he said. "And so, I walked through the ashes, but I still saw the two remaining walls, the limestone walls that were up there just an architectural jewel as to how the fire did not destroy those walls... So, I said, 'well you know what,  this looks like it could be a museum.'" 

Jackson believes a museum like this belongs in Chicago.
"There was Pilgrim," he commented. "We have a natural connection to Thomas Dorsey and then we had the connection to the gospel music community."

The new museum will honor gospel music legends such as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Shirley Ceasar. 

It will also offer a research and listening library, an auditorium and several interactive features.

"We have more video on gospel music artists than anybody," said Jackson.  "So, we're going to use that. Once they come into the theater, and we have a bit where we show the background, those are the kind of interactive displays and exhibits that we will have enough to just rock you where you don't want to leave, but you just come and go there — you just go on from there singing."

The National Museum of Gospel Music is set to open in the fall of 2020.

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