Mabel Gary Philpot – or “Sister Gary” as she was known in the pulpit and on the air, came to WRAL-AM in the 1940s to host a gospel music program on Sunday evenings. She was the first African-American to host a regularly-scheduled radio show in Raleigh.
A native of Abingdon, Virginia, Sister Gary studied at and graduated from Knoxville College seminary in Tennessee. She preached her first sermon at age 17 before being ordained as a deacon and elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
For more insights about Sister Gary, we turn to the master story teller himself, Fred Fletcher, to share a few memories about her time on WRAL radio with an excerpt from his book “Tempus Fugit.”
Sister Mabel Gary was a preacher, widely respected in her community. We rightly assumed that, given air time on Sunday evening, she would draw an audience. We learned that the audience was not only from the Negro community – which we expected – but from our white listeners as well. They all liked Sister Gary and the St. Paul AME Zion Church Choir.
She was a powerful preacher, in the best traditions of her church, the same kind of style you still hear when Jesse Jackson gives a speech. But Sister Gary was not political; she was religious.
One of her targets was whiskey. During the war, I remember her chastising a world that wouldn’t let grocery stores have paper bags because of the paper shortage, but provided bags at the state ABC stores. “There’re no bags at the grocery store,” she preached. “But you go to the liquor store, and they have bags, plenty of them.”
And the congregation would say, “Tell it, Sister Gary.”
She was also a very good singer, one that could put a wealth of emotion into a hymn and make you feel what she felt, no matter what denomination you were. One hymn that she frequently did – and the audience always enjoyed – was called “The Last Mile of the Way.”
She would sing, and the congregation would respond. Then, she’d sometimes say, “I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but it’s the best I got.” I remembered that when I gave one of the eulogies at her funeral. Sister Gary was somebody who always gave the best she had.
One bit of worldly evidence about the power of Sister Gary’s program was in the ratings. They were usually good, and one period she beat WDNC’s Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
For more information about Sister Mabel Gary, click on this link to the CBC History website.
Thanks to Corp’s Pam Allen for this capcom story. Pam Parris Allen is a former WRAL newscast producer/director who now works as a researcher and producer on the CBC History Project.