Sister Gertrude Morgan made a record. She made it using crayons, poster paint, pens, and even shoe polish on all kinds of surfaces from cardboard to canvas. She made it using spirituals, gospel hymns, shouts, chants, and songs she made up on the spot, sometimes accompanied by piano, guitar, and always with percussion. She made it in orphanages, prisons, street corners, jazz festivals, art galleries, and her living room. She made it in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Sister Gertrude Morgan’s record reveals her single-minded commitment to worship. Her artwork and music were saturated with images and words from Scripture. Even the clothes she wore were consistent with revelations she received from the Lord about her mission to preach the gospel and her identity as the bride of Christ.
Country life, 1900–1938
Sister Gertrude Morgan was born the seventh child of a dairy farmer on April 7, 1900 in Lafayette, Alabama. When the family moved across the river to Columbus, Georgia, in 1917, Sister Gertrude began attending Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church (part of the National Baptist Convention). In 1928, she married Will Morgan.
At Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church, Sister Gertrude studied the Bible and learned the core Christian doctrines that grounded her faith. Her pastor, James Berry Miller, is a good example of the emphasis on literacy and education that characterized many black communities around the turn of the century. The Bible was the primary teaching tool. Though he was born a slave, Rev. Miller eventually earned a Doctor of Divinity degree.
This emphasis on formal training led to successful ministries like Rev. Dr. Miller’s. But it also alienated self-taught ministers who were either unwilling to adopt more reserved forms of worship or unable to meet the new qualifications for ministry. Though Sister Gertrude’s formal education did not extend beyond third grade, she learned to read and write and knew the Bible well. She could also sing and play the piano. However, the formal training that would qualify her for ministry in the Baptist Church was beyond her reach as a poor, black woman living in the country.
When Sister Gertrude received her first call to go and preach on December 30, 1934, she lived in the tension of the more conservative Baptist Church that nurtured her faith and encouraged her education, but that also urged assimilation rather than free expression of the simple message God put on her heart and mind. When she received her second revelation in 1937, she could no longer contain it. Though it was the middle of the night, she ran from house to house with the news. Shortly afterward, she set out on her own, supporting herself by working as a nanny and nursemaid. During this time she also began singing and preaching in the streets.
Sister Gertrude’s decision to leave her home must have been difficult, but during the urban migrations of the 1920s, it was not so uncommon for black women and men to found their own missions after receiving the call to preach. Known as “jack-leg preachers,” these itinerant musical evangelists supported themselves by selling their songs, or “ballets” (Sister Gertrude distributed one called “A Poem of My Calling”). Their hard-working voices often gave them a distinctive sound that came to be emulated in later gospel music styles.
Just outside the city, 1939–1956
Some jack-leg preachers traveled the rail lines and remained on the streets indefinitely, but others settled down if they found a sympathetic group of supporters. Just before her fortieth birthday, Sister Gertrude received another vivid revelation during a terrifying hailstorm in which the Lord told her to leave the streets and find a new way to preach the Gospel.
She headed toward the city of New Orleans, where she met Mother Margaret Parker and Sister Cora Williams. Together they founded an orphanage in the Lower Gentilly neighborhood on the outskirts of New Orleans (533 Flake Avenue). The three of them traveled to the French Quarter to preach on the streets and raise money to support the mission. During this time Sister Gertrude began using simple crayon drawings and music to teach the gospel to the children she cared for.
Sister Gertrude and Mother Margaret continued the ministry after Sister Cora’s death in 1944. They traveled to worship conferences in Louisiana and Texas that were associated with the Holiness and Sanctified Church. Anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “The whole movement of the Sanctified Church is a rebirth of song-making! It has brought in a new era of spiritual-making” (The Sanctified Church, pg. 104). Remnants of brush arbor ring shouts and rhythms from the African slaves can be heard in the worship of the Holiness and Sanctified Church. The ecstatic style lends itself to improvisation and preaching.
Sister Gertrude combined her rich knowledge of the Bible (especially the Book of Revelation) and her commitment to sound Christian teachings with the rough voice of the jack-leg preachers and rhythm of the Holiness and Sanctified worship.
Settling in the Ninth Ward, 1957–1965
After the city of New Orleans shut down the Flake Avenue mission because it failed to comply with housing codes in 1955, Sister Gertrude began singing and preaching in the streets of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Soon afterward she received a revelation that she was the bride of Christ and from that day forward she dressed only in white.
Sometime around 1960, an art dealer named Larry Borenstein invited Sister Gertrude to show her artwork and perform her music at his gallery, Associated Artists, on Saint Peter Street in the French Quarter. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Though Sister Gertrude began receiving acclaim at art shows and jazz festivals through Borenstein’s promotion of her work, she insisted, “Just be sure and give Jesus credit for what I do. He’s the one that deserves all the praise. He’s the one that made me do it” (from a 1973 interview with Rosemary Kent). She once refused to accept a trophy for her work in an exhibition sponsored by the Louisiana State Art Commission because she considered it a “graven image.”
Sister Gertrude settled in the home of a widow named Jennie Johnson (5444 North Dorgenois). In 1965 the entire Lower Ninth Ward was flooded after Hurricane Betsy caused the levees to breech. Jennie Johnson died shortly afterward, and Borenstein quietly bought the house so Sister Gertrude could remain there. She whitewashed the walls and christened it “The Everlasting Gospel Mission” (from Rev. 14:6–7).
Women who were not permitted to minister in Christian churches were often welcomed by the “Spiritual Church” and Voodoo movements that thrived during this period. These eclectic movements venerated Roman Catholic saints and Native American folk heroes. Worshipers called on angels and demons in trance-inducing rituals. Sister Gertrude established her Everlasting Gospel Mission just blocks from The Manger of True Light, where a charismatic leader in the Spiritual Church named Mother Catherine used to hold services.
Although women like Mother Catherine and her predecessor Leafy Anderson gained influence, respect, and freedom to minister in the Spiritual Church movement, Sister Gertrude rejected their path to ministry. She held fast to the sound Christian teaching of her upbringing in the Baptist Church and turned to the Holy Spirit alone for inspiration and authority over and against all other spirits. At the Everlasting Gospel Mission, Sister Gertrude refuted the teachings of the Spiritual Church and preached biblical truths to people who had previously worshiped at Mother Catherine’s Manger.
Sister Gertrude transformed the living room into her Prayer Room and held daily services. The white walls were decorated with her artwork, including a large painting of the New Jerusalem from the Book of Revelation (also a recurring theme in her music) and a painting of the “All-Seeing Eye” which included an inscription with the words of a spiritual by the same title. She painted hand-made fans and megaphones with images from the Scriptures and the spirituals. One of her favorite images was of her and Jesus in the cockpit of an airplane, probably inspired by Mother McCollum’s 1930 spiritual “Jesus is My Air-o-plane.”
Preaching the New Jerusalem in New Orleans, 1974–1980
In 1971, Borenstein invited Sister Gertrude to make a record since his friend, British sound engineer Ivan Sharrock, was in the studio. According to Benjamin Jaffe, the son of Allan Jaffe who founded Preservation Hall with Borenstein, “The album is very typical of how Sister Gertrude sang. As they got ready to roll the tape, she said to Larry, ‘Let’s make a record for our Lord’—and on the spot, she made up a song based on that idea. She could take a verse from the Bible and turn it into a song” (Let’s Make a Record liner notes).
Sister Gertrude sang in the same range as her speaking voice so she could transition smoothly between song, shout, chant, and sermon. Her tambourine and the repetition of simple phrases created a sense of driving rhythm.
Sister Gertrude’s worship through art and music is full of imagery from the Book of Revelation and focuses on Jesus’ second coming. This emphasis expresses a central theme in gospel music. In his book, Protest and Praise, Jon Michael Spencer writes that “In gospel music Jesus Christ is Everything—Friend, Protector, and Liberator—because he is portrayed as the Ultimate Alternative to a world that is essentially nothing, that is, no friend, offering no protection, and conditioned by captivity” (pgs. 221–22).
Larry Borenstein’s gallery was right around the corner from the infamous Bourbon Street, known as the place “where vaudeville went to die.” The Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood where Sister Gertrude founded her Everlasting Gospel Mission was known as “the murder capital of the murder capital.” By the time Sister Gertrude made her record, her neighborhood had endured the following events:
1960 Six-year-old Ruby Bridges is the first black student to attend William Franz Elementary School; she is escorted by U.S. Marshalls past white protesters
1965 Hurricane Betsy strikes New Orleans, causing levee breaches in the Lower Ninth Ward and other neighborhoods; 164,000 houses are flooded
1970 Police stage violent raids on Black Panther offices on Saint Thomas Street and in the Desire Housing Project
Songs and images of Jesus as an airplane may seem odd to many of us, but they make perfect sense in a context where the storm waters of prejudice, hurricanes, and violence regularly flooded the streets.
Sister Gertrude was 71 years old when she made her record, in a context where few black people could expect to live that long. As rural black people migrated to the cities in search of a better life, the deep disillusionment many of them experienced is expressed in the other-worldly focus of gospel music. Her message is like Jesus’ message to the man crucified next to him: in the midst of insurmountable and overwhelming odds, he offered the promise of imminent paradise.
While her listeners knew that interruptions could come in the form of illness, violence, or storms at any time, Sister Gertrude’s ministry through art and music shifted the focus to divine interruptions—the only interruptions that mattered to her.
Sister Gertrude died in her sleep on July 8, 1980. After having a traditional jazz funeral, she was buried in an unmarked grave at Providence Memorial Park in Metairie, Louisiana, near Louis Armstrong International Airport.