64. I’m Bound For The Promised Land
Written by Samuel Stennett, 1787
Performed by The Sallie Martin Singers with Cora Martin
From the album Throw Out The Life Line (Specialty, USA 1969)



Located just past the entrance of the Gateway to Bronzeville, on the circular median on King Drive and 26th Place, the fifteen foot tall statue named The Monument to the Great Northern Migration represents the 6,000,000 African American men, women and children that migrated to the south side of Chicago in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The figure, carrying a briefcase in one hand and waving into the distance with the other, is covered with patches depicting the worn shoe soles of African Americans that migrated from southern states in search of a ‘Promised Land’ of Chicago. This information comes to you courtesy of discoverblackheritage.com.

The great migration could be thought of as a kind of quest for space – space without the limits and low horizons forced into place by racial segregation, economic deprivation, educational impoverishment, and kept in place by force of law.

Sallie Martin was born in Pittfield, Georgia in 1895. That year saw the start of an escalation of racist violence in Georgia that would reach record levels. These were the high years of white supremacist hysteria and the demonising of black male sexuality: William Fitzhugh Bundage, author of Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930, describes a speech given in 1897 to the State Agricultural Society of Georgia by journalist Rebecca Lattimer Felton, who suggested that ‘if it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week if it becomes necessary.’ 1899 saw the worst racist mob violence in the state’s history, with the murder of twenty six African Americans – one a fortnight – in that year alone.

Sallie Martin left school while still in the eighth grade, and when her mother died she left Pittfield and moved to Atlanta, where she worked in a number of low paid menial jobs. In 1916 she joined the Pentecostal Fire Baptised Holiness Church, and found her voice: she would maintain her links with the Baptist faith into which she was born, but it was at the Fire Baptised Holiness Church that Martin developed her love of African American sacred music and found the style that would help reinvent it.

Let’s pause for a second at the Fire Baptised Holiness Church. Writing about the Holiness church, in her book Spirit & Truth: The Music of African American Worship, Melva Wilson Costen reminds us that ‘the African roots of jubilees, field hollers, moans, groans, spirituals, blues, jazz, and ragtime found their home in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Holiness, Pentecostal and Sanctified movements of African American churches.

The Fire Baptised Holiness Church was formed in 1898 by William Edward Fuller Sr, and according to its website http://www.fbhchurch.org one of Church’s beliefs is ‘that the Pentecostal baptism of the Holy Ghost and Fire is obtainable by a definite act of appropriating faith on the part of the wholly sanctified believer, and that the initial evidence of the reception of this experience is speaking with other tongues as the spirit gives utterance (Acts 1:5; Acts 2:1-4; Acts 8:14-17; Acts 10:44-46; Acts 19:6).’ It is likely that in addition to finding her voice, Sallie Martin may also have discovered the voices of others residing in her, perhaps the bearers of those African roots that Costen traced back to the Fire Baptised Holiness Church.

By the mid 1920s Martin had married and given birth to a son. In 1927 she and her family moved north to Chicago. We didn’t find any material online about how or where Martin and her family lived. But thinking about race, space, and urban planning in Chicago, we were lucky enough to come across this insight from James Grossman in the Encyclopaedia of Chicago History into the living conditions of most black Chicagoans in the first decades of the great migration:

‘The majority of migrants settled on the South side of Chicago, what became known as the Black Belt. The boundaries that distinguished this small section of Chicago were mainly street crossings, that once crossed marked an entrance into a different neighbourhood. Often, drains overflowed into streets causing the streets to become unsanitary rivers that children often played in. Living spaces were small and often infested with rats and insects. The density of people in neighbourhoods like Bronzeville was often twice that of the surrounding white neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods often butted the most prestigious of white neighbourhoods, with only a fence to delineate the tenement or apartment from the backyard of a wealthy white homeowner.’

The migrants had came to Chicago because of job opportunities – there was factory work for men and domestic work for women for which they could earn more than they could in the south – even though the chances of getting and keeping such jobs was heavily circumscribed by the racism of white employers.

We wondered whether these were the kinds of spaces Martin and her family experienced. On the question of space, race, and housing, Grossman tells us that ‘Chicago provided migrants [with] more space than they had in the South. However, as more and more people arrived in Chicago, housing became overcrowded. Six-flats, apartments buildings with three floors and two apartments on each floor, would be broken up into more and more smaller apartments as the housing shortage worsened. These apartment or tenements were most often ‘kitchenettes.’ The basic idea of a kitchenette being, everything enclosed in one room, including the kitchen. Similar to what we call an efficiency apartment today, except a bit smaller and housing more people. Families of four and up lived in these small spaces that they called their home. Rat infested, in disrepair, and dilapidated, though they may be, they belonged to the migrants as their own.’

Grossman then takes a leap from the question of domestic, social, urban space, to the question of inner space, the space of the imagination, and he highlights for us the significance and the difference between space in the north and space in the south: ‘Whatever the living conditions, the freedom of the mind that was allowed within the space meant much more. The personal freedom associated with the North made it so attractive that the accommodations were not of huge importance to migrants. Though the living spaces were often the worst in the city, this option was often more appealing to migrants than living in the South where both physical and mental space was severely circumscribed.’

Perhaps Chicago kept its sense of promise, the idea of being a promised land, alive among migrants in the south because it allowed this kind of inner space, this space of possibility – a space from which the world outside the mind could be changed. Certainly, in the years between 1916 and 1970, 500,000 African Americans would migrate from the south to Chicago, in spite of the increasingly abject physical environment the city offered them. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re still in the 1920s. It’s 1929, before or after the stock market crash that would plunge the world into a major economic depression, and Sallie Martin has divorced her husband. In the few articles we found about Sallie Martin, none mentioned her husband’s name. It seems from what we’ve read that the most significant relationship of Martin’s life, at least her public life, was with the man she met sometime between 1929 and 1931. His name was Thomas Andrew Dorsey.

Born in Atlanta in 1899, Thomas A Dorsey had been a very successful blues and jazz pianist with an ear for innuendo. His composition It’s Tight Like That sold over seven million copies. He recorded and toured with the major jazz and blues stars of the 20s – among whom were Big Bill Broonzy and Ma Rainey, and he led his own band. Dorsey was also an arranger and talent scout for Paramount Records. After suffering the second of two nervous breakdowns in as many years, Dorsey retired from the music business in 1928. A minister had warned Dorsey that he was sick, not so much in the body, as in the head.

Maybe the minister had a point. Although he had been writing spirituals as early as 1921, the blues and jazz were where Dorsey found success and a sense of community. Dorsey was raised a Baptist and Baptists believed it was impossible to be a Christian and play blues and jazz, which they regarded as the music of the Devil. Dorsey’s growing mastery of these opposing forms may have left him overworked and overwrought, but it also made him supremely placed to fuse spirituals with jazz and blues idioms to create something new.

Dorsey called his new music ‘gospel blues.’ He has been credited with creating gospel music, although Costen suggests this may well have been a group effort. Tracing the term’s origin back to England in 1873, and its first appearance in black American vernacular in the National Baptist Convention publication Gospel Pearls [1921], the first book of songs published by a black denomination that used the term ‘gospel’, Costen cites composer Charles Tindly as ‘a pivotal force in the development of composed and published gospel music,’ having founded his own publishing company in the early 1900s and exerting, through his work as a composer, writer and organiser, no small influence on Dorsey and quite a few people besides. One of Tindly’s compositions, I Shall Overcome, rewritten sixty years later as We Shall Overcome, would become an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

By the time Sallie Martin met Dorsey, Dorsey had formed his own publishing company and, according to Don Ely, author of ‘Georgia’ Thomas A Dorsey, Dorsey formed one of the first gospel groups at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church. It was with Dorsey’s group, according to The Encyclopaedia of African-American Culture and History that Martin made her debut professional performance at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church in early 1932. According to Coden, Martin and Dorsey organised the first Gospel chorus at Ebeneezer in 1931. Either way, the Dorsey-Martin partnership would go on to play a pivotal role in the making of gospel music.

Martin was the first major gospel singer to work with Dorsey and she breathed fire into his songs. Martin gave Gospel music its voice. She gave this new sacred music its defining characteristic – a vocal performance style that in place of the studied formality of the Negro Spiritual, poised itself between the immediacy of the African inflected styles of the Holiness church and the crafted sensuality of early African American pop. Describing her performance style, Horace Boyer and Lloyd Yearwood, authors of The Golden Age of Gospel, inform us that ‘unlike other Chicago performers, Martin never attempted to smooth out her rough hewn voice. She adopted the sanctified style of shout singing and was known for her Holy Ghost jerks and steps. When she was taken over by the spirit, her dark alto would soar above a shouting crowd […].’

Martin was also a tireless publicist, promoter and proselytiser for gospel music in general and Dorsey’s work in particular. By all accounts Martin was forthright and cantankerous, and her relationship with Dorsey was one of equal wills. She worked with and for Dorsey throughout the thirties, and in that decade she took gospel music out of the church and into the commercial mainstream, and in doing so she turned the music into an African American cultural force.

With Dorsey she toured Chicago’s black belt, the South and Midwest, forming choirs and groups and developing a circuit of venues that would lay the basis for the gospel music industry. They also gave the music an institutional presence, co-founding the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Martin was NCGCC’s first vice president – a post she held for forty years.

In 1940 Martin parted company with Dorsey. Although the split was as combative as the partnership, the two maintained a deep mutual respect. Martin toured as a solo artist accompanied on piano by a young Dinah Washington, and then formed the Sallie Martin Singers, believed to be the first female gospel group, with whom she toured America and Europe. She also formed a publishing company, Martin & Morris, which she co-directed for thirty five of its forty years, during which time it became the biggest and longest running black and female owned publisher of black Gospel music in America.

Martin’s record sales never equalled those of the major female gospel artists for whom she paved the way, but her business acumen and entrepreneurial skills made her one of the wealthiest woman in gospel music. Her involvement in the civil rights movement extended to representing Martin Luther King at the celebrations for Nigeria’s independence in 1960, and after Nigeria’s independence Martin maintained her connection to the country, contributing to Nigeria’s health programme.

Sallie Martin died in 1988. She was in her early nineties. As an artist and organiser she helped create a distinctively urban sacred music, a music grounded in the social spaces and sonic traditions of black life before slavery, and black life before and after emancipation – a music grounded in a hope of a beyond, a life beyond segregation, beyond racism, a life beyond death. Maybe, for Sallie Martin, Chicago was the Promised Land, but by the late eighties the promise was losing its appeal. After seventy years in the promised lands of the north, African Americans were migrating back to the south.


Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930, by William Fitzhugh Bundage University of Illinois Press 1933

In Spirit and in Truth: The Music of African American Worship, by Melva Wilson Costen, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

Fire Baptised Holiness Church

‘Great Migration’, by James Grossman

‘‘Georgia’ Thomas A Dorsey’, by Don Ely

Encyclopaedia of African-American Culture and History, Volume 1 [Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, Cornel West]

The African American Registry

The Golden Age of Gospel, by Horace Clarence Boyer, Lloyd Yearwood, University of Illinois Press, 2000

Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, by James R Grossman, University of Chicago Press, 1989

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, by Nicholas Lemann, Knopf Publishing Group, 1991

Encyclopaedia of Women and Religion in North America: Integrating the worlds of women’s religious experience in North America, by Rosemary Skinner Keller, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marie Cantlon, Indiana University Press, 2006



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