By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
From the Glenville High School Library to the Studios of WCLV Radio and Beyond
An oft-quoted passage from Mr. Kermit Pike’s manuscript history of the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society (formerly known as the Black History Archives Project) states:
In 1971, twenty-three people served on the original Black History Archives Project: Russell T. Adrine, Dr. Tillman Bauknight, Myrtle J. Bell, Professor Thomas E. Campbell, Ernest C. Cooper, Russell H. Davis, Lawrence L. Evert, Ralph W. Findley, Rev. Donald G. Jacobs, Ronald M. Johnson, Butler A. Jones, Dr. Middleton H. Lambright, Robert P. Madison, Professor August Meier, Mrs. A. Grace Lee Mims, George A. Moore, Professor Wilbert Nichols, Ralph L. Pruitt, Robert L. Southgate, Dr. Booker T. Tall, John B. Turner, William O. Walker, and Harvey M. Williamson.
At least two of the group’s founders had known each other for many years. Mrs. A. Grace Lee Mims and Mr. Robert P. Madison were, in fact, fictive kin—with family ties that linked them to their ancestors’ experiences in rural Snow Hill, Alabama, Mims’ birthplace.
At the age of 15, Madison’s father, Mr. Robert J. Madison, enrolled in the Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, a much-needed private boarding school for African Americans, because Alabama did not provide education for Black children beyond the eighth grade. Mims’ maternal grandfather, William J. Edwards, was the founder of the school. A generation later, she, too, would attend Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute.
In the preface for his 1918 publication, Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt, Edwards described the motivation for both the establishment of the school and the writing of the book:
In bringing this book before the public, it is my hope that the friends of the Snow Hill School and all who are interested in Negro Education may become more familiar with the problems and difficulties that confront those who labor for the future of a race. I have had to endure endless hardships during these twenty-five years, in order that thousands of poor negro youths might receive an industrial education, – boys and girls who might have gone into that demoralized class that is a disgrace to any people and that these friends may continue their interest in not only Snow Hill but all the schools of the South that are seeking to make better citizens of our people. I also hope that the interest may be sustained until the State and Nation realize that it is profitable to educate the black child as well as the white.
Mims’ bandleader and college professor father, her pianist mother, and her six musically inclined siblings all seem to have valued education as highly as did Edwards. After graduating valedictorian from Snow Hill Institute, Mims earned her undergraduate degree at Virginia’s Hampton Institute, where she met her future husband, Howard A. Mims. When she travelled to Cleveland, Ohio to pursue her Masters in Library Science at Western Reserve University, she benefited greatly from the hospitality of her extended family members, the Madisons.
After living and working for a time in Michigan, Dr. Howard A. Mims and Mrs. A. Grace Lee Mims settled permanently in Cleveland, where she worked for the Cleveland Public Library, and, by the 1960s, at Glenville High School—where she built an extensive Black Studies collection, coordinated a Black Arts Festival, designed a lecture course on Black history and culture, and continued to pursue a career as a classically-trained vocalist who never hesitated to perform the music of Black Americans, including jazz and spirituals.
The recipient of numerous awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State University, Mims is also known for her service on the boards of numerous arts organizations, her work as a voice faculty member at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, and her programming activities at WCLV Radio, where she hosted “The Black Arts” for more than 40 years. Her good friend Robert P. Madison was a long-time program sponsor.
In the wake of Mims’ passing on October 4, 2019, I learned that Mr. Madison had asked staff members at WCLV about the possibility of obtaining a recording of a Black Arts program for which he served as a special guest. For a while it seemed that, with very little in the way of identifying information, including the programs theme and broadcast date, no one at radio station would be able to find that recording. Nevertheless, as one of Mims’ former students, I continued to reach out to family members, letting them know that I was interested in obtaining the Madison interview and anything else related to my teacher’s work in Cleveland.
On the evening of Saturday, February 22, 2020, the family member who is the executor of Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims’ estate invited me to come to her East Cleveland home to pick up a small box of arts-related material that might be of some value. Inside, among the approximately two-dozen recordings was a tape labeled “1/98 Black Arts, Leontyne Price w/ Robert Madison Interview.”
Listening to that January 7, 1998, recording at the Cleveland Institute of Music was almost like being in the same room with two good friends who really loved each other and their work. Someday soon, I hope to share digital copies of this recording with members of the Madison family and others.
Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims was an incredible educator and ambassador for Black history and culture, and we were blessed to have her with us for 89 wonderful years.