Feature Story
Willie May:  A Living Legacy

by Hiram Crowder and
Willie Mae Wright

Willie Mae Wright, founder of Melodic Ministries, started her work as far back as the mid-1960s.

She testified before Congress in 1967 on the plight of poor people. She also was part of the host team that guided Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Robert Kennedy through Hough at the time of the riots. She also was vice-president and co-founder of Housing Our People Economically (HOPE), one of the first nonprofit housing corporations in the United States in 1969. She spoke at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting on the issues of poverty in Washington, DC in 1990, and has connected many suburban and inner-city churches for religious programs and joint social action.

Working with and for the poor was only one part of the work Mrs. Wright had done. In 1975, she sang for Pope John VI at the Vatican. She also sang at the International Africa Prize Award ceremony at the Hunger Project in New York at the United Nations building. She has opened for famous names in gospel music such as the late Mahalia Jackson, the late Rev. James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar and Whitney Phipps. She has also recorded two albums with the Wright Family Singers – a group made of Willie Wright and seven of her eight children. She also sings at churches, civic events, colleges and gatherings of many kinds on a regular basis.

In all that she has done and continues to do, Mrs. Wright had taken time to talk to a writer from Connection Magazine about her life’s work. Her husband recently passed, but she still keeps going, and maintains that she is a woman of faith. This is her story:

In my role as an escort through the Hough neighborhoods in the late 1960s, there was more involvement at that time with Hubert Humphrey than with Senator Robert Kennedy. At that time, Senator Kennedy was running for office on the Independent ticket, and he was seeking the support of the Democratic Party, but they did not support him. Mayor Carl B. Stokes, who was of the Democratic Party, was not at liberty to go to him at that time. There was a rally on Public Square, where Mayor Stokes was speaking on one side and Senator Kennedy was speaking on the other, and I was told, along with others who worked with me, that we could not meet with Senator Kennedy because of our support for Mayor Stokes.

My husband, the Rev. W.J. Wright, was instrumental in gaining political support as the Cleveland-based, field representative for HOPE. The ministers in the community became concerned, and we just started leading, strategizing and praying, and we asked God to show us a better way for his people. There were Cleveland ministers including Rev. Walter Grivette and Father Albert Klokoski, along with others. After we members of HOPE introduced our cause to Congressman Vanik, we were eventually given a hearing before the Senate, in which I was allowed to speak about the plight of the poor.

After the hearing, President Lyndon Johnson sent Vice President Hubert Humphrey to Cleveland to see what the housing conditions were like before any money could be allocated. I served on the host committee for the vice president’s visit. The men in our committee, my husband included, worked with the FBI to guarantee safety. The host committee escorted Vice President Humphrey through the streets of Hough and Vice President Humphrey witnessed firsthand the housing conditions of Hough at that time.

I remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a special way, from an encounter that took place before the situation in Hough. I was on the refreshment committee when Dr. King came to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. My relatives would hold meetings for the Citizens for Justice at their home, and I along with others, would serve refreshments while the ministers were strategizing. Dr. King was a man who had a mission. He was so ingrained into his mission, that he rarely smiled; but when he did, this big laugh would come. He would just break into pieces, and then go back to that serious look on his face.

After my husband and I had married, we found ourselves becoming involved in causes to help improve the standard of living for people. We started to understand what it meant to be led by God. There were many experiences where I was able to help people

I came to know the Lord through many different people. I was brought up in more or less a religious environment. My mother was one (who said) you had to go to church or you didn’t go to the movie. I would always go to church because I always liked to go to the movie on Wednesdays. I am a firm believer, now, that the steps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord, even though the Lord has to instill His righteousness within us. We moved out of Alabama, (newly married) after high school, and we moved to New York. And God began to put people in my path. ‘Sanctified’ people! I was really afraid of them. I just thought they were crazy. My aunt had a friend that worked with her in the city and she said, ‘You know, Willie Mae, you have got to meet Bernelle,’ that was her name, ‘because she’s sanctified and holy. Oh, you’ll just love her.’ My aunt would come out on weekends to the city (we lived in Long Island), and she would tell me, ‘Oh, God is going to use you.’

I said, ‘What’s wrong with this woman? She sounds like one of those sanctified people.’ She said, ‘Oh honey I could just see God in your life…’

I said, ‘Why do you keep saying that? I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’

She said, ‘You will one day, honey, when you’re saved. Get saved.’

I said, ‘What do you mean, "get saved?" Do you mean religion?

‘That’s not gonna work,’ (she would say). She was so loving and so kind, and even though she would get on my nerve, I couldn’t even make her mad."

After we moved to Cleveland, the love of God continued to show through others that we encountered. We stayed with my aunt, until we found a house for rent on East 89th Street. We finally got settled in, although we didn’t have any furniture at that time, because we left everything in New York. That evening, my husband went out to get some cooked food, and while he was gone, someone knocked on my door. I went and I opened the door, and there was Sister Alice Eubanks. She said, ‘Praise God.’

I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I knew that word; didn’t know much about it.

She said, ‘I’m Sister Eubanks, Sister Alice Eubanks, and I just want to welcome you, praise God. You’re my neighbor, and I live just right down the hall.’

(I’m thinking) Oh God, I can’t be bothered with this.

She said, ‘Are you saved?’ Then I said, ‘Do you mean do I have religion?’ She said, ‘That’s OK, God is going to do a good work with you in your life, I can see that. Welcome!’

This lady worked us over. We kept telling her we didn’t want to be bothered with that, we were born Baptist, we were going to die Baptist. Eventually, we moved to another home in the Cleveland area.

We moved into the projects. We stayed in the projects and our family began to grow, and I told my husband, ‘We need a house.’ He talked to someone about getting a house on land contract. We were living on Quimby.

We moved in the fall so when the spring came, we planted a garden. In late spring or early summer, the garden really came up. You could see it from the driveway. We didn’t have a garage, but we had a garden in the space in our driveway where the garage would have been.

A windfall of blessing came for us through meeting an elderly lady named Mother Taylor, who lived down the street. She came one day and knocked on my door and she said, ‘Baby, may I have some of your vegetables out of your garden, for some food? I don’t have nothing.’

I said, ‘Oh, yes ma’am.’

I allowed Mother Taylor to get what she needed from the garden, and asked Mother Taylor inside, offering her half of the food in my refrigerator. She looked at me, and I said, ‘Ma’am, take this.’ I had some chicken. I gave her some chicken, margarine, eggs, everything.

She said, ‘Are you saved, honey?’

I got so sick of hearing that question, I said to myself, What does that have to do with the price of tea in China, lady? All I wanted to do was give you some food, and here I have met another one of those sanctified people.

She forgot all about the food. She said, ‘Honey, praise God.’ She was so gentle. She said, ‘Let me begin to pray for you, pray for this house.’ She began to walk around the house, asking God to save this household. She put her hand on my stomach and she was praying. I was pregnant at that time. I had three other children looking at me. She went all the way upstairs and down to the basement, just praying. I called my husband and told him I had another one of those sanctified people in the house.

He said, ‘I don’t want to hear about those crazy people, Willie Mae! I don’t want nothing to do with them, so don’t even tell me!’ That was on a Tuesday.

On Thursday, I got the children all dressed and they were out in the front yard, and the kids called and said, ‘Hey, mama! Here come the lady that prayed for your stomach!’ I tried to get them in the house. My son said, ‘No, mama, that’s the lady that prayed for your stomach! Remember?’

So I invited her and her friend in.

Mother Taylor told me how she told the church at prayer meeting what she did for me two days ago. ‘The Lord’s prophecy came forth, honey, and the Lord brought prophecy, and here’s Mother Daniel.’ Mother Daniel just looked like an angel. She was so gorgeous, she was tall and 83 years old. She (Mother Taylor) said, ‘Saints said that they put Mother Daniel’s furniture in storage, and she’s gonna move in here until God completes his work.’

So Mother Daniel looked at me, and she said, ‘Praise God, honey. Show me your largest room.’

We had a room where the wall had been torn out, two rooms together, and that was our bedroom.

She said, ‘I’ll take this one. How soon do you think you can get …’, then she looked at me. She said, ‘You can’t do it. Do have a phone honey?’

I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ Then she called her son-in-law.

Now her son-in-law had one of the biggest after hours joints in the area, and that’s where my husband would go sometimes and gather with the boys (after work). She said, ‘Henry, I want you to get some of your boys over here and to help. I’m moving in today; and I want you to move my bedroom set over here,’ and that was around 10:00 in the morning. At 1:00 p.m., Mother Daniel was in the house lock, stock and barrel.

I told my husband about the move-in of Mother Daniel, and he did not take the news very well; but Mother Daniel had a plan to bring us a blessing. Mother Daniel came, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, honey. God is gonna take care of everything.’ She told her son-in-law, ‘Henry, I want you to go to that furniture store up there; these children need furniture. God is gonna provide for them. Ms. Wright, just write down what you need, and my son-in-law will bring it … She needs a living room set. She needs a dining room set. Henry we need a stove in here, we only have a hot plate. We need chairs. Let’s go upstairs, baby.’ She said, ‘Henry, you’d better do this, because I’ll bet you her husband comes at your after hours joint. God is going to take that

And Henry said, ‘Mama, I’ll do it; just don’t start telling me what God’s gonna do.’

When Brother Wright got home, I could see him coming down the street. He was walking and he was so frowned up, I didn’t know whether to stay on the porch and let the neighbors see him kill me, or go in and then no one would see him kill me. When he hit the door, he walked hard, I just had to move back in the house. He was just looking at me. By that time, Mother Daniel just came downstairs and turned the corner. She said, ‘Praise God.’

Mr. Wright responded. ‘How do you do, ma’am.’

She said, ‘The Lord tells me He has a mighty work that He’s going to do in both your life and your wife’s life, and He’s going to save your household, even your unborn children, Mr. Wright, even the children that you don’t even know about yet.’

My husband melted in the sweet mother’s hands like glue.

He said, ‘Make yourself at home, ma’am. Stay as long as you like.’ He asked me, ‘Where did all of this stuff come from? You know I can’t afford to pay for this.’

I told him, ‘She told her son-in-law to bring all this.’

He said, ‘Do you know who her son-in-law is?"

I said, ‘You know the guy that runs the after hours joint? Henry.’

‘Henry?" he shot back.

I said, ‘Yes. Henry.’

He said, ‘God must be doing something."

Mother Daniel stayed with us for three years to see us get saved. She would get up early in the morning and have Bible class with us before Brother Wright went to work and again in the evening. It was just such a blessing how God placed her there all because we gave. You can’t beat God giving. Momentarily, this woman wanted a few vegetables out of our garden, but I gave her everything that we had; and out of that, God blessed us with household salvation. Every one of my children got saved, and so did my husband.

When she got ready to move, Mother Daniel got up early one morning. She said, ‘The Lord said I can go back now, you all are ready to go on your own.’ We just cried; we didn’t want her to go. That’s how I got saved.

God sent those mothers, Mother Taylor and Mother Daniel. I was saved in the year 1960, and has been that way for 39 years.

When I was a kid, I used to love to sing. We lived way out in the country on the north side of Montgomery, Alabama. If you could call or scream out loud, your echo, a delayed echo, would come back. I used to go down by the rivers, and I discovered that I really could sing. It was something in me that made me feel good when I sung songs. So I would start singing, and then I would wait, and I would sing a few bars and I would wait and hear my echo come back and it was starting to sound good, and I would sing a little more. Then people began to look for me to sing. My great-great-great grandmother used to call me her music box. And I used to sing a lot for her. She was a former slave. She gave me a lot of old spirituals. A lot of old spirituals, were used as messages. Our fathers, they could strike up a message for one another to get free from that bondage.

I started a singing group with my children: the Wright Family Singers. The Lord has opened many doors. Working with Father Jim O’Donnell, I used to sing all the time when they would ask me, and that’s what got me to Rome, Italy in 1975. It was Jubilee year there, which the Catholic Church would celebrate every 50 years there. They had a lot of people going to Rome, and I don’t know today who paid my way, but Father Jim told me, ‘Someone paid your way, and they want you to go with us.’

On our first evening, Father Jim told me, ‘Willie, tomorrow morning we’re going to start on our ten-day pilgrimage, and we want you to go.’ So over the night, I had a dream. I dreamt that I was in this vast hall, and it looked like I was singing, and I remember the song that I sang was, He Touched Me.

The next day, Father Jim said, ‘We’re going to St. Francis of Assisi, and the next three days we’re going on our pilgrimage, then we’re going to come back here, and we’re going to start our services. They were Charismatics.

I told Father, ‘I can’t go. The Lord wants me just to fast and pray.’ So he didn’t question me, and I stayed and fasted and prayed.

The third day, Father Jim asked me, ‘Would you sing for us, Willie?’

I said, ‘Okay.’

When I walked in that hall, there were about 10,000 people. It was a place where the young men would give service to the Pope. When I walked in that hall, my dream just came alive.

When I was called to sing, I went up and sang, ‘He Touched Me’ The Pope heard me on television. The next morning, when we had service, someone started paging me. I didn’t know what it was. I was afraid my husband was sick at that time, and I told them if I had to go back home, I would. I thought that they were paging me about him.

When I reached the phone, I heard from one of the men in service to the Pope.

He said, ‘The Pope heard you sing last night, and he would like to know if you would be his honored guest.’

I was standing there with the phone and thinking, ‘Nobody’s gonna believe this.’ I said, ‘But what am I supposed to do?’

At the Vatican Square, there were many people who came to see the Pope, when I was led through the crowd to meet him. "They were bringing the Pope in on this thing, like what they used to carry Cleopatra. When they set him down in his chair, he prayed for me. He said, ‘God has given you an anointing,’ even then before the word anointing became so popular. He said, ‘Out of your ministry of singing, it would heal wounded hearts and cause people to leap for Jesus.’

I had to have about ten people around me at all times, because they were looking to him for being their leader, and me, not even Catholic? The Pope laid hands on me and said, ‘He will use you the rest of your life; and as you grow older, you are going to be greater.’ I sang the songs, He Touched Me, Amazing Grace, and the Pope requested, Michael Row the Boat Ashore.

That’s how I got to sing for the Pope. I didn’t even think of having an audience with the Pope; but God opened that door. And even now, when we were getting sympathy cards about my husband, there were people who were writing about Rome.

I recently traveled to Zaire in Africa. While there, I saw poverty, but in a much different state than what we see in the U.S. We were able to help the missionaries over there to build an intercessory prayer group targeted for them. But one thing that the Lord showed me going there, is that we are so blessed here in America that we are spoiled, and we take God for granted. Those people get up at 4:00 am and walk, about the same distance as from Cleveland to Akron, to go to a service where they would stand all day, eating one meal so they can walk back. You can’t even get us to drive our cars to church. We complain about everything, and those people stand out in 125-degree heat, praising God. There is no church, just a tent, and posts. People would come and sit on the ground. I started to fit in so well over there, they started calling me Mama. I just never saw such devastation and poverty. I cried. I was there 23 days. I was moved by the great faith of the people I met in Africa and plan to return; yet I am so very thankful to be in America. C

Editors note: Willie Wright moves on as a woman of faith. She continues her melodic ministries of singing, praying, and speaking on behalf of those who are touched by poverty.