Read an Excerpt
How Sweet the Sound
Gospel Series Book 1
By Vanessa Miller
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Vanessa Miller
All rights reserved.
August 12, 1933 Negro Day
You look like a beautiful bride, Shar. We should have saved this dress for your wedding rather than this pageant," Marlene Gracey said to her daughter.
Gazing at her reflection in the full length mirror, Shar found herself agreeing with her mother. The shimmering white dress did, indeed, look like a wedding dress, but she wasn't thinking about no wedding right now. "Mama, I'm only seventeen. Daddy said you ain't allowed to marry me off before I'm full grown."
"What's full grown? I was sixteen when I started courting your daddy, and we doing just fine."
"Mama, I keep telling you that marriage and babies is far from my mind. All I want to do right now is sing in this competition today." For so long, the Miss America pageant had denied colored girls entry into their pageant. But now they would have their own pageant. The prize was a hundred dollars in gold and three hundred dollars in gifts. Shar desperately wanted to win those prizes. Her family could do a lot with a hundred dollars worth of gold. So she needed to focus.
"You and your daddy got singing in your blood. Your daddy done gave up on his own singing ambitions, so now he trying to live through you. But one day you gon' have to wake up and see that singing didn't get your daddy nowhere and it's gon' be the same for you."
Shar didn't want to argue with her mother. All her life it seemed that she had only been able to please one parent at a time. If she was singing, her daddy was happy. If she was cleaning and cooking, her mama was tickled pink. Shar just hadn't been able to figure out how to make them both smile at the same time. But she knew what made her happy and that was singing. "God gave me this voice for a reason. And I intend to use it for His glory. And I'm not going to let nobody stop me."
"I don't care what you do with that voice of yours, Shar Gracey. But what you ain't gon' do is talk to me like I'm some stranger on the street. I'm your mama. And I'm going to get some respect."
Shar lowered her head. "Yes, ma'am. I surely never meant to disrespect you."
Marlene put a gentle hand on Shar's arm. "Forget what I said, hon. You just go on out there and win this pagent."
* * *
Standing at the corner of 61st and Wabash avenues, Pastor Landon Norstrom watched the Negro Day parade kick off. It was the most colorful exhibit Landon had ever seen, with floats, cars, and marching bands lining the streets for miles on end. Landon noted several white men sprinkled throughout the parade, "Friends of the Race," as the Chicago Defender referred to them. The first colored state senator, Adelbert H. Roberts, was on one of the floats, along with several other colored officials.
Seeing these men participate in an event such as Negro Day, which was a day of celebration for the triumphs of colored people, put Landon at ease. He had been in Chicago all of one week. He'd arrived to take over as pastor of United Worship Center, but he'd been recruited out of Alabama for another purpose as well. Landon's church was smack-dab in the middle of the Black Belt, the area where colored folks had been relegated to.
The Black Belt was overcrowded and filled with dilapidated houses. So his first order of business, outside of running his church, would be to work with Robert R. Taylor to garner decent housing for the people in his community. The pastor before him had been involved in this movement before he passed away, and Landon would continue the fight. Robert R. Taylor was the manager of the Rosenwald Apartment buildings. The apartments had been built in 1929 by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company as a means of meeting the need of low-cost housing for colored people.
He would meet up with Robert Taylor at the Miss Bronze America pageant, which was being held at Soldiers Field. They would see each other later on, but for now, Landon set his mind to enjoying the parade and watching the floats go by.
"Hey, Pastor Landon!" one of his parishioners yelled at him from his seat on one of the floats.
Landon didn't remember the man's name, but he did recall meeting him during his first Sunday at United Worship Center. Landon raised his hand and waved. "See you tomorrow at church."
"No doubt!" His float drifted down the street.
The parade ended at the A Century of Progress exposition. Landon and the rest of the participants walked around the area, viewing the artwork. By the time he made it over to Soldiers Field to look for Robert Taylor, the Miss Bronze America pageant had already begun. Landon glanced up and viewed the most exquisite women he'd ever seen in his life. Most of the colored women he came in contact with worked as maids and were too tired to worry about hair and makeup after a hard day of house cleaning.
"They're beautiful, aren't they?" a man said as he approached Landon.
Landon noticed that the man had on a black jacket and black hat as Robert told him he'd be wearing, so Landon took a guess. "Robert Taylor?"
The man took off his hat and bowed gallantly. "At your service, Pastor Landon."
"How'd you know who I was?" Landon asked.
Robert put the hat back on his head. "You're the first man I've run into today in all brown who actually looks like a preacher, so it wasn't hard to figure out."
The two men shook hands. "It's nice to finally meet you," Landon said.
"Likewise. Have you gotten settled in?"
"Almost. I didn't bring much besides my clothes and shoes. The previous pastor had already furnished the house."
"That's good. Let's go have a seat so we can get down to business."
Landon and Robert sat down and began their discussion. They became so engrossed in the conversation that for almost an hour the noise from the activities around them didn't faze them. But then a beautiful young woman in a long shimmering white gown took hold of the microphone and began singing "Surely God Is Able."
Landon looked up. He recognized the song as being written by a Reverend Herbert W. Brewster. He was a Memphis preacher, and Landon had visited East Trigg Baptist Church and heard the reverend and his choir perform that song with his own ears. But the sound coming out of this bronze beauty was unlike anything he'd ever heard. Her angelic voice mesmerized him. He stood to get a better view.
"She's something else, isn't she?" Robert stood up also.
She sang. "God is able to carry you through ..."
"Who is she?" Landon had to know the identity of the woman with the caramel skin and coal black hair who had so captured his attention that he would gladly spend a lifetime with this space in time locked in his memory bank.
"You haven't met Shar Gracey yet?" Robert asked with a lifted brow.
"If I had, I sure don't think I would have forgotten," Landon said, eyes still transfixed on her beauty.
Her song continued. "He'll be a mother to the motherless, a father to the fatherless."
"She attends United Worship Center."
"Is that right?" Landon decided to make it his mission to get to know all of his parishioners ... and especially Shar Gracey.
"Looks like her mother is walking our way. Would you like me to make the introduction?"
Landon turned to see the short, plump woman walking toward them. He nodded.
"Mrs. Marlene, you are sure raising up that child of yours. Shar sounds like an angel." Robert hugged Marlene and then made the introductions.
"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" Marlene looked from Landon to Robert Taylor, both men shook their heads.
"As a matter of fact," Robert began as he glanced at his watch, "we just finished our business for the day, and I'm on my way to another meeting."
As Robert Taylor walked off, Marlene turned to Pastor Landon and said, "I hope the good people of United Worship Center been treating you right."
Landond nodded. "Everyone has been wonderful. I'm just sorry that I didn't get a chance to meet you and your daughter last Sunday."
"We were there, but we had to leave directly after service so we could get the washing done for some of the ladies I do housekeeping for. But I was sure sorry that we had to leave before having a proper introduction. I wanted my Shar to meet you. Yes, indeed. So, I hope you have time to meet her today."
Landon grinned at Marlene. He had dealt with his share of match-making mothers back in Alabama. But this was one match that Landon wouldn't hide away from. "I'd love to meet your daughter, Mrs. Marlene. And don't worry, I can wait until they crown her the winner of this here pagent."
"You think she's going to win, huh?"
Landon wasn't sure why the look of despair crept into Mrs. Marlene's eyes at his suggesion that her daughter just might win the pageant. But he decided not to get into it. They were about to announce the winner so he turned toward the stage with her. Shar was among the five women still competing, and Landon believed that she had a real good shot, especially with that magestic voice of hers.
The announcer started calling off runner-up number five. He went all the way down to number three without mentioning Shar's name. Landon leaned down and whispered into Mrs. Marlene's ear, "I think she's got it."
Then the announcer said, "And runner-up number two is ... Shar Gracey."
Landon was sure he saw a smile of relief on Mrs. Marlene's face as she clapped for her daughter.
"That girl did a fine job today. She didn't have to win no prize for me to be happy."
Landon started clapping too. When Shar came down off the stage and stood next to them, she looked as if she wanted to cry, so he told her, "You're too pretty to be frowning like that, Miss Shar. And besides we all know that you should have won that crown. I would have given it to you after the way you sang that song. Yes, ma'am, you're a winner."
"Thank you for your kind words, Pastor Landon. I'm sorry that I didn't get a chance to welcome you to the church last week. But you had a long line of folks waiting to shake your hand, and Mama and me had to get home and finish the washing."
"Don't talk the good pastor's ear off about our chores," Marlene told her daughter, then turned to Landon. "I hope we're not keeping you from anything."
"Don't worry yourself about that at all, Mrs. Marlene. I just completed my business here and was just getting ready to ask Miss Shar why in the world, with a voice like that, she wasn't singing in our choir."
"United Worship Center doesn't have a choir." Shar said this as if providing him with information he didn't know.
"We do now," Landon told her. "I'm making it my business to find the best choir director the city of Chicago has available ... that is if you'll agree to sing at our church."
Grinning from ear to ear, Shar told him, "Why I'd be honored."
"But only if she has the time," Marlene chimed in. "We get really busy a couple Sundays a month."
"Come on, Mama." Shar's eyes implored her mother to understand. "I want to sing so bad that I dream about it all the time. Being allowed to sing in the choir would be like making my dreams come to life."
"What do you say, Mrs. Marlene?" Landon looked from mother to daughter. "I don't think you want to be responsible for crushing your beautiful daughter's dreams, now do you?"
"I tell you what, Pastor," she hooked her arm around his. "You walk me and my beautiful daughter home, and I'll give you my answer about this choir business on the way."
"Yes, ma'am," Landon quickly agreed.
The three began walking down the street, and Marlene said, "While we walk, Shar, won't you tell the good pastor about some of your other talents."
With a look of confusion on her face, Shar asked, "What other talents?"
Marlene laughed. "Stop fooling around, chile. Tell the good pastor about them good old butter beans you cooked last night."
The look of horror on Shar's face was priceless. Landon wanted to tell Shar not to fret, that he knew this was a setup and wasn't complaining one bit.CHAPTER 2
1935 Depression in the Black Belt
Shar Gracey, you better get yo' little narrow behind back here."
Her mother was doing it again, and Shar was about to have a natural fit. "Please go back inside. The wind is blowing somethin' fierce out here this morning."
Shar and her mother had stayed up half the night, then had gotten up at five that morning to finish the washing and ironing for Mrs. Jansen. Her mother had been hacking and coughing the whole way through. Now she was standing on the porch with nothing but her thin housecoat on, and that thing was so raggedy that Shar could see more of her mother's flesh than she wanted to.
"Don't forget this." Marlene handed her daughter a sweet potato pie. "You give that pie to Pastor Landon, ya' hear. Let that man see just how good he'd be getting it if he takes your hand in marriage."
Protesting, Shar nevertheless took the pie. "Ma, Pastor Landon knows that I'm not the one making these pies. And this is the thirties. Colored women aren't only in the kitchen cooking up somethin' good for the menfolk. We're writers, like that Zora Neale Hurston up in Harlem, and singers, like Mahalia Jackson." Shar was more like her daddy than her mama and she knew it, for she was an unrepentant, head-in-the-clouds dreamer.
"Hush, chile, and get on from around here with that foolish talk. You just take that pie to Pastor Landon."
"Okay, I've got the pie, now can you please go back in the house?"
"And don't forget to smile real pretty for him," Marlene said, right before the hacking started up again.
As Shar watched her mama walk back into the house, she lifted her face to heaven and prayed that God would help her find a way to make some money. She needed that money yesterday but would take it any day it showed up ... just as long as she could get her mama to a doctor.
Shar's shoulders slumped with the knowledge of just how poor and perplexed she was. She had nothing and no way to make anything better. She had dreams bigger than the stampede of Negroes who left the South for friendlier northern lands. Her daddy had promised that things would be better up north. But here they were on the South Side of Chicago, living in the Black Belt, where things didn't seem no better.
Oh, they weren't getting lynched like so many of her family members had in the South, but the white folks in Chicago acted like colored folks was trying to steal something from 'em. They put restrictions on everything, just like them Jim Crow southerners. The Restrictive Covenants in the North meant that her family was going to be living in the same old dilapidated shack that they thought they had left behind. Her daddy couldn't even find work half the time, while she and her mama took in rich white ladies' washing to help put food on the table.
If only she could have won that hundred dollars of gold from that Miss Bronze America pageant. But the judges weren't too thrilled with the song she'd picked. The winner had been a girl who sang "Amazing Grace," a song that twenty-five other contestants had chosen to sing. Shar had been down in the dumps after that contest. But Pastor Landon had come up to her after the competition and told her that she sounded like an angel singing praises to the Lord.
Pastor Landon had even said that she was the prettiest girl in the pageant and had walked her home. On the way home, Shar's mama had nudged her and whispered, "Smile, girl, show the man those deep dimples." As if that was going to cause him to ask for her hand in marriage right then and there. But nevertheless, Shar smiled like her mama told her. And she'd been smiling ever since. Because a year after they met, Landon had come to the house and asked her father if he could court her. Now she and Pastor Landon kept company at least one day a week. She loved when Landon walked her home or when he talked to her about his dreams of helping the people in their community. Her mama kept telling her that Landon would be asking for her hand soon and very soon. But then Landon would get so tied up with his work that Shar began wondering if she and her mama was just wishing in the wind.
Excerpted from How Sweet the Sound by Vanessa Miller. Copyright © 2014 Vanessa Miller. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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