The shelves here at the Texas Collection hold many collections about the lives and experiences of African American Texans. One of these collections, the Jules Bledsoe Papers, concerns the life and musical career of Jules Bledsoe. Julian (Jules) Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe was born in Waco, Texas on December 18, 1898 and went on to travel the world for his career as a baritone singer. His papers include his library of sheet music, recordings of performances, personal correspondence, programs, and much more.
Jules served in the military during World War I and moved to New York City after the end of the war. While in New York, he received an Honorable Discharge. However, his stint in New York only lasted a short while. Jules signed a performance contract with the Young Men’s Christian Association, Colored Branch in Penniman, Virginia. While in Virginia, Jules sat for photographs in dress uniform for, in his own words, “40 years from now I might want to point back to when I was a soldier in the World War and you know nothing is better evidence than a picture.” Though he lived and performed in Virginia, he set his sights on returning to New York City.
Jules returned to New York by 1920 and saw his career take off by 1925. He performed in places like the Manhattan Opera House and critics hailed him as one of the greatest baritones of the day. His letters home mention his work with great New York composers. He even performed his own compositions during recitals, including his most well-known piece, “Old Man River.” Though based in New York City and traveling the world, Jules never forgot about home. He returned to Waco many times throughout his career and performed multiple times at the New Hope Baptist Church.Continue Reading
Duer-Harn family papers. 1832-1928, undated (#26): Diaries, letters, legal and financial papers from the Republic of Texas and American Civil War. Notable documents include several diaries from the 1830s and 1840s written by German immigrant Johann Christian Friedrich Duer.
Gertrude Wallace Davis papers, 1896-1959 (#2166): Includes correspondence, notebooks, newspaper clippings, and other materials about the life of Gertrude Wallace Davis. Several items are from the Catholic-affiliated Academy of the Sacred Heart, in Waco, Texas, where Davis attended school.
Roxy Harriette Grove papers, 1906-1953, undated: Grove was chair of the Baylor School of Music from 1926 to 1943, when Baylor became the first school in Texas to attain membership in the National Association of Schools of Music. Her papers consist of correspondence, literary productions, financial papers, and teaching materials.
Frances Cobb Todd papers, 1899-1990, undated: The Todd papers represent the third generation of Smith-Cobb-Bledsoe family heritage and New Hope Baptist Church materials at The Texas Collection. The collection contains items from Todd’s life and work in Waco and New Hope Baptist Church.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many members of the African-American community in Waco preserved memories of family, friends, and community by donating collections of letters, photos, financial documents, and more to The Texas Collection. While the collections may have arrived separately, the stories they tell often overlap and provide various perspectives on the same people and events. With items dating from 1861-1991, these collections cover many important events in the life of the African-American community in Waco and the story of Waco.
One family in particular, the Cobb family, has brought three generations of family materials to be preserved and made accessible to researchers at The Texas Collection. These items contribute to many record groups documenting the African-American experience in Waco for 130 years. Learn more about these historic figures in the paragraphs below—every hyperlink represents a collection.
Stephen Cobb, representing the first generation of Cobb materials in The Texas Collection, helped found one of the oldest African-American churches in Waco, New Hope Baptist Church. He also served as the first pastor of the church. Through two marriages, Cobb had thirteen children, eleven of whom lived to adulthood.
Many of Stephen Cobb’s children and relatives became prominent in the Waco black community—see the Smith-Cobb family collection to learn more. Several became schoolteachers, one daughter taught music, and another daughter married the noted Texas educator Robert Lloyd Smith. A protégé of Booker T. Washington, Smith served two terms in the Texas Legislature and founded a society to help black sharecroppers in the early 1900s. This society, called the Farmers Improvement Society, had 12,000 members in 800 branches across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas at its high point in 1911.
One of Stephen Cobb’s daughters, Jessie, married Henry Bledsoe. Their son, Julius Bledsoe, or Jules Bledsoe as he was popularly known, was an international opera star in the 1920s-1940s. He sang for audiences around the world, wrote music, and performed in plays, radio, and television. His most famous piece was “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Showboat,” though he also sang many other songs and spirituals. After a career of 22 years, Bledsoe died in Hollywood in 1943.
At least one generation later, Irene Cobb was also active in the Waco area. A schoolteacher for 31 years at various schools around Waco, Cobb was also active at New Hope Baptist Church. By this time, she was at least the third generation of Cobb family members to attend New Hope.
Irene Cobb’s daughter, Frances Cobb Todd, continued the family tradition of activity at New Hope, and followed her mother’s career path and became a teacher in the Waco Independent School District. Frances Todd was one of several New Hope members to take an interest in preserving historical documents important to the Waco African-American community, and she helped bring several New Hope-related collections to The Texas Collection.
Resources such as historic photographs, music, letters, financial documents, programs, and many other materials are available for research in our African-American collections. If you are interested in donating materials documenting the African-American experience in Waco or Texas, we would love to talk with you!
Love the photos above? Check out our Flickr set below to view a few more from these collections (click on the crosshairs in the bottom right corner to make it full-screen). And then set up a visit to The Texas Collection to see even more great documentation of the African-American community in Waco.
“The mission of the Christian experience is expressed in the gospel of liberation, sharing the good news of what God has done in delivering his people from oppression. The gospel of liberation is rooted in the Judeo-Christian faith. It is an experience which is concretized in history. It is a happening, a living reality. This is good news for an oppressed people. God is the God of freedom, He participates in the historical process to liberate his people from oppression and bondage.” –Marvin Griffin, “Teaching Christ through the Black Experience,” 1973
On this 45th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is important to remember that there were many others who fought, and who continue to fight, at a local or regional level for African American civil liberties. One such warrior from the central Texas region was Rev. Dr. Marvin Griffin.
Marvin Collins Griffin was born in Wichita, Kansas, on February 20, 1923, and felt a call to ministry at the young age of seven. Education proved to be a powerful medium through which Griffin could equip himself to preach the gospel and fight for African American civil rights. Griffin earned his bachelor of arts from Bishop College in 1943, a divinity degree from Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in 1947, and a master’s degree in religious education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1955. That last degree was particularly noteworthy, because Griffin was the first African American to earn a degree from SBTS. Years later, Griffin would go on to attain a Doctorate of Ministry degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Griffin used his quality education and his sense of calling to fuel his ministries. His first significant pastoral assignment was at New Hope Baptist Church in Waco. From 1951 to 1969, Griffin led his congregation in Christian and social activism. He began an extensive radio broadcast ministry and led various marches and pickets in Waco. The Marvin C. Griffin papers at The Texas Collection feature more than 1,500 audio recordings of his sermons and broadcasts, starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 2010s.
In 1969, Griffin relocated to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Austin, Texas where he remained for the next 42 years. Once again, Griffin believed that his church should be involved in the spiritual and secular life of the community. He led the church’s efforts in creating the East Austin Economic Development Corporation in 1998. This organization was a vehicle through which the church could assist the underprivileged through housing programs, day care centers, counseling, and financial assistance. In 2002, the EAEDC building was renamed in honor of Marvin Griffin.
In addition to his pastoral duties, Griffin was also involved in local politics and denominational affairs. He served as the first African American president of the Austin Independent School District Board of Directors, during which time the schools were using buses to encourage efforts of desegregation. Griffin was also involved in the Missionary Baptist General Convention of Texas, was the Director of the Christian Education Enrichment Program at the National Baptist Fellowship of Churches, and served as a Director-Lecturer for the Teacher Training Department of the National Baptist Sunday School Congress.
On July 31, 2011, Reverend Griffin retired from his tenure as pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Like Martin Luther King, Griffin devoted his life to preaching the gospel and empowering his peers to rise above the injustice of racial discrimination.
The Marvin C. Griffin papers, which have recently been processed, are now open for research. The materials therein provide an in-depth glimpse of Rev. Griffin’s pastoral ministries, his involvement within the Baptist denomination, race relations in the church and in central Texas, as well as the development of a liberation theology. This collection represents a treasure trove for researchers. Come on down to The Texas Collection as we celebrate the life’s work of a revolutionary in Texas race relations!
Learn more about Griffin’s leadership in Waco race relations in this article from the Waco History Project on his role in beginning the interracial Doris Miller Dialogue Group (DMDG) shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination.
By Thomas DeShong, Archival Assistant and Digital Input Specialist
Each month, we post a processing update to notify our readers about the latest collections that have finding aids online and are primed for research. Here’s the scoop for March:
Kenneth Hazen Aynesworth papers, 1826-1965, undated: Aynesworth’s papers consist of family materials, correspondence, literary productions, collected materials, and medical records collected by Kenneth Hazen Aynesworth, a local doctor who gave the first donation to establish The Texas Collection in 1923.
Thomas L. and Pit Dodson collection, 1710-1991, undated: The Thomas L. and Pit Dodson collection contains a wide variety of collected materials, including literary productions, books, photographic materials, and scrapbooks. While spanning three centuries, this collection consists primarily of early- to mid-twentieth-century art prints and periodical clippings.
Marvin C. Griffin papers, 1940-2010, undated: The Griffin papers contain literary productions, photographic materials, audio recordings, and other materials pertaining to Reverend Marvin Griffin, an African American pastor who fought for the spiritual and political freedoms of his congregations at New Hope Baptist Church (Waco) and Ebenezer Baptist Church (Austin).
Lula Pace collection, 1895-1969, undated: This collection contains student notebooks, topographical maps, and scholarly publications by Lula Pace, a PhD graduate of the University of Chicago who served as a science professor at Baylor University in the early 1900s. Learn more.
The Texas Collection is proud to present our newest exhibit, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Musical Heritage of Jules Bledsoe and New Hope Baptist Church.” In honor of African American History Month, this exhibit traces the interweaving stories of Jules Bledsoe and New Hope Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.
Jules Bledsoe, one of the first major African-American opera stars in the United States, was born in Waco in approximately 1899 and sang his first concert at New Hope Baptist Church at age five. He sang for audiences around the world, wrote music, and performed on stage, radio, and television. His most famous piece was “Ol’ Man River” from the musical “Show Boat.” After a career of just twenty-two years, Bledsoe died in Hollywood in 1943.
New Hope Baptist Church, a historically African-American church in Waco, has been in operation since 1866. Stephen Cobb, grandfather of Jules Bledsoe, served as the first pastor of the church. Through the years the church has been known for having a vibrant musical tradition, with many choirs, an orchestra, and various musical performances.
“This exhibit represents some of Waco’s best musical traditions,” co-curator Paul Fisher explains. “Bledsoe’s international fame as an opera star was fantastic for the African-American community and Waco, as was New Hope’s national reputation as a musically gifted, vibrant church.” Visitors to this exhibit can see Bledsoe’s music, photographs of New Hope Baptist Church, and information about both Bledsoe and New Hope.
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Musical Heritage of Jules Bledsoe and New Hope Baptist Church” was curated by Texas Collection staff Paul Fisher, Geoff Hunt, and Amie Oliver, and graduate students Amanda Dietz, Adina Johnson, and Mary Ellen Stanley. Archival manuscripts donated by New Hope Baptist Church and ancestors of Jules Bledsoe made the exhibit possible, and these materials are open for research. New Hope Baptist Church continues to worship every Sunday at their church on 915 North 6th Street, Waco, Texas. You can see the exhibit through May at The Texas Collection in Carroll Library.