Baylor University will create an endowed faculty position for the study of Black worship, with a gift from the Prichard Family Foundation and Ella Wall Prichard of Corpus Christi, Texas.
The new Lev H. Prichard III Chair in the Study of Black Worship will expand upon Baylor’s existing work through the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, while also adding scholarship in the areas of Black worship and preaching.
News of this new endowed chair comes amid Baylor’s own attempt to reconcile its historical ties to racism and slavery. A blue-ribbon commission recently completed a detailed analysis of the school’s history, statues, monuments and buildings. That report is being reviewed by university regents and administrators and is to be released publicly by the end of this month.
Baylor already has a national reputation in the field of Black Gospel music because of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. The founder of that project, journalism professor Robert Darden, appeared recently on the highly acclaimed PBS documentary “The Black Church.”
The Gospel music project has been described as the world’s largest initiative to identify, acquire, digitize, catalogue and make accessible the fast-vanishing vinyl of Gospel music’s golden age. The collection primarily contains 78s, 45s, LPs and the various tape formats issued in the United States and abroad between the 1940s and the 1980s. The ultimate goal is to have a copy of every song released by every Black gospel artist or group during that time period.
The project to date has digitized 6,679 albums, with 33,152 individual track recordings preserved, spanning nearly 1,900 artists.
Baylor has partnered with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Materials from Baylor’s collection are featured in the museum’s Musical Crossroads permanent exhibit.
It was news of the Black Gospel Project that first attracted the attention of Lev Prichard one year before his premature death. His wife, Ella Wall Prichard, is a Baylor alumnus and former member of the board of regents.
In 2005, Professor Darden wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the preservation of Black Gospel tapes and recordings. That piece gained widespread attention, including the attention of collector and scholar Charles Royce, whose subsequent gifts to Baylor began the current collection.
Three years later, in 2008, Lev and Ella Prichard visited Baylor’s campus with their grandson, who was a prospective student. Lev Prichard had one other request for the visit: He wanted to meet Darden and learn more about the Black Gospel Music Project.
Although their grandson chose a different school, that campus visit cemented Lev Prichard’s commitment to the music project because of his own deep love of music that had been nurtured in him at a young age. The Prichards are long-time members of First Baptist Church in Corpus Christi.
Before his death in 2009, Lev Prichard made his last gift to Baylor, split between scholarships and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. Later that same year, the Prichard Family Foundation established the Lev H. Prichard III Black Sacred Music Endowed Fund. The endowment expanded the scope and access of the archive, allowing for greater research and appreciation of the music. That, in turn, led to the partnership with the Smithsonian.
Now, the family has added to that legacy with a $1.5 million gift that will be matched by an anonymous donor through Baylor’s Academic Challenge, an incentive to create new endowed academic chairs.
What sets Baylor’s program apart from other colleges and universities with Black Church Studies programs is the interdisciplinary nature of its expanding academic research and its musical roots.
The as-yet-unnamed holder of the Prichard Chair will coordinate research efforts and promotion of the Black Gospel Restoration Project collection through Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary, School of Music and other academic departments.
“The Prichard Chair will further Baylor’s work in the preservation of Black Gospel music, but it will go beyond that; the chair will open new areas of research into the cultural significance and into the history of Black worship and the church in America,” said Baylor President Linda Livingstone. “As a Baptist university, we celebrate this opportunity to expand our study of this significant part of our Christian history and culture.”
Ella Prichard said that her husband would be proud of his family’s work to preserve something he loved so dearly for future generations.
“He would be thrilled about the work the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project has done,” she said. “He never wanted any recognition or publicity, and he wasn’t a scholar, so he would also find some humor that there is an academic chair named after him. He would also be very proud that we’ve been able to make a difference.”