A new PBS series from historian, professor and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the history of gospel music and its deep roots in Chicago.
It was the Great Migration that saw approximately 7 million Black people move from the American South to Northern, Midwestern and Western states — bringing the musical traditions of their churches with them.
It’s estimated that more than 500,000 of those migrants settled in Chicago — including the likes of Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, who would become pioneers of a new kind of music.
“Chicago, almost in its DNA, carries the unique story of burden and blessing for Black people,” said the Rev. Charlie Dates, pastor at Progressive Baptist Church and Salem Baptist Church of Chicago. “To think about half a million people leaving the American South and coming to Cook County alone in weather like January and February is a story of trial and struggle. It is people in search of hope, and I think that Chicago has been that kind of seedbed of hope for African American people in business, in athletics and in television — but more particularly in church. So that music embodies the story of Chicago in a real sense and the hope that people have found here.”
From its roots here in Chicago, gospel has become a transcendent and transformational art form that is loved around the world.
Dr. Cynthia Nunn is the director of the women’s choir at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago as well as the minister of music for Dayspring Ministries in Hammond, Indiana. Nunn has taken numerous trips to Europe to bring gospel to a broader audience.
“I believe it has universal appeal because it has evolved,” Nunn said. “It is captivating. It is also from the soul. It is an experience, and it is faith. So as we progress even in life, those that are faith-based, this is what really works. Those that were coming from the South, this was the part of them that they brought with them. And they loved the church foundation, and they found themselves embraced with this music because it goes not only from the South and slavery, but it goes back to Africa. That is part of our DNA.”
“Gospel” premieres on WTTW on Monday, Feb. 12.