Carolina Conversations: Spiritual Awakening Producer Dona Jackson Anderson

Airing Sunday mornings on WRAL-TV, Spiritual Awakening has carried the torch for gospel programming in central North Carolina since it began on WRAL radio as The Sister Gary Spiritual Program in 1942. For over 75 years, the program has provided a platform for performers from across the state, along with occasional Grammy-winning national and international touring acts like California’s The Mighty Clouds of Joy, South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir and North Carolina’s own Shirley Caeser.

Dona Jackson Anderson—a native of Huntington, West Virginia and a graduate of Raleigh’s John W. Ligon High School—has produced the show since 1990, continuing to book talent for Spiritual Awakening’s Monday night tapings even after her retirement from WRAL nearly a decade ago. On set, Anderson jokes with guests and crew while simultaneously running a tight ship, ensuring each half-hour episode is packed with multiple performances along with a brief interview by current host Bishop Terence Jenkins, the show’s fourth since Sister Mabel Gary Philpot’s passing—and thus the show’s name change—
in 1978.

Anderson also strives to uphold the legacy of Sister Gary, who, based on her powerful preaching at Raleigh’s Grace AME Zion Church, was tapped by WRAL-AM’s then-general manager Fred Fletcher as the first African-American to regularly host a radio show in the state capital. Even in its early days, Sister Gary’s program reportedly drew a significant number of listeners from both the black and white communities in the area, and Anderson constantly seeks out a variety of talent in an effort to appeal to broad audiences.

“I don’t want to forget the show’s roots, but I would love for it to become more diverse because we’re all one in Christ,” Anderson says.

OutreachNC: How did you get involved in working in television, and on Spiritual Awakening
in particular?

Dona Jackson Anderson: I went to college at Florida A&M where I majored in psychology and minored in music. I didn’t want to be a social worker, so I came to Raleigh—where I had finished high school—and got a job as a secretary in state government. I worked there for about two years but decided I really loved the arts. I liked TV and I liked acting, so I decided to go to the Carolina School of Broadcasting in Charlotte. I came back [to Raleigh] after finishing and was able to get my foot in the door at WPTF TV as a secretary for the programming department. There, I learned everything my supervisor did as a programmer. I was able to be a liaison between the station and the network, which was NBC at the time.

I stayed there for about four years and then I was able to come over to WRAL in the same position. While here, they had this show called the Sister Gary Spiritual Program. This evangelist [Sister Mabel Gary Philpot] would do a little sermonette and her choir would sing gospel music. There was no producer, they just came in and the camera crew shot whatever they did.

Meanwhile, I became minister of music at Watts Chapel Baptist Church in Raleigh, where I served for 23 years. As I watched the program and shadowed the producers in my department, I thought “I can do this,” so I raised my hand and said I could produce the show. I thought I could be an asset to it because of my knowledge of and love for gospel music, and they let me do it.

The ‘Jones Boy’s of North Carolina’, practice their set before performing for Spiritual Awakenings at the WRAL studio.

ONC: What was your background in gospel music prior to being involved with the show?

DJA: Well, I grew up in the church. I was in the junior choir and I played the piano. My mother and my grandparents were singers. Back in the 1950s, there was an organization called the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses that was headquartered in Chicago. Different cities would form chapters and there would be a big convention every year in Chicago, where delegates would go up and learn about music and form a big national choir.

Meanwhile, the different states would have their own conventions as well and people from the headquarters would come down to those conventions. At that time, African Americans weren’t staying in hotels, so the church members would put them up in their homes. We had a big house and would always host about three delegates every time they came. This same man, who was friends with my grandfather, would always come. I liked him. He’d always wear this tweed suit and call me “little girl” and let me sit on his lap.

When I went to college and took a music appreciation class, we learned about this musician named Thomas Dorsey, who wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” When they put his picture up on the screen, I said “I know him!” [I realized that] as a little five-year-old, I sat on his lap.

ONC: How do you feel Spiritual Awakening has been important to gospel music and the African American community in North Carolina?

DJA: I think it has had an impact, and I’m praying that it will continue to have an impact. It has really served the African American community in that it gave them a voice. It gave them a chance to expose their talents as well as their ministries so that they could lift their ministries higher and people would invite them to different places and things like that. Some have even gone national, a few, so it meant a lot [to those groups].

The show is a ministry itself, which I found out because I started hearing from people of all ethnic groups who watched it. They would write me or call me and tell me how much they appreciated it. There was an old Caucasian lady who told me she’s a Presbyterian, but she gets up every morning and gets dressed for church while listening to Spiritual Awakening. Another person, who worked at a lab at Duke, told me one of the Indian doctors passed them by, then backed up and said “Didn’t I see you on TV Sunday? Yeah, on Spiritual Awakening!” So it’s amazing the people that watch it and the [diversity] of the audience.

ONC: How do you think the show has sustained an audience and resonated for over 75 years? Have you had to adapt very much to the times to keep it relevant?

DJA: No, not really. One thing about the African American community is that the church, and faith, is big and that’s where we are. We may be everywhere else, but the church is where we do a whole lot of things. We’re interested in [faith] and I think that’s why it has stayed that long, because we get into that.

I am glad the show is on WRAL.com, because the people who don’t get up at 6:30 AM can just wait and watch it on there. I haven’t really felt an impact [otherwise from technology] and we’ve always had good ratings compared to who we’re up against at that time. I’m told that we’re holding our own.

ONC: Do you think the show allows folks outside the African American community to have a window into the African American church?

DJA: Yes, it’s great exposure. It allows others to hear what African Americans do and that there’s diversity within the African American church music. There’s gospel—traditional and contemporary—and then, within that, we include miming and praise and worship dancing as well, so there’s a whole lot [of different elements] that people can see.

ONC: How has the music branched out from traditional gospel?

The ‘Jones Boy’s of North Carolina’ perform for Spiritual Awakenings at the WRAL studio.

DJA: We do get contemporary and we’ve had Southern gospel too. We’ve had Jeff Majors, who played gospel music played on the harp with a group of singers. We’ve had some country and we’ve even had bluegrass—a group called Gone Fishin’, with fiddles and everything. We had a band with a white guy playing harmonica and black musicians behind him. It was awesome! He said he was brought up in a black church because his friend’s mama would drag him there, so that’s how he got a little soul in him. He could play that harmonica though!

I don’t do a lot of rap. I’m not against it, but this audience is not up for 30 minutes of that, not the age group that watches this show. When I do get requests from rap groups, I’ve got to be able to understand what they’re saying. It’s got to be clear.

When becoming diverse, I don’t want to shock anybody. I have to sift a little bit to make sure they fit in, but [the diversity in styles] has been coming, slowly but surely, and I’ve not gotten any negative comments on it. I mean, you have more interracial and non-denominational churches now and people are becoming more accepting.

ONC: What keeps you still working on this show after retiring in 2009?

DJA: I just love it! I love meeting people. I’m not going to work anymore, so it gives me something to do. This is a ministry and I use it as my ministry, because my greatest joy is to see the happiness on people’s faces and I love to hear their voices.

In our community, we have programs at our churches and we’re always looking for somebody to perform, so [some viewers] watch Spiritual Awakening to invite these people to their program. So on Sunday morning, right before the show is over when [host] Terence [Jenkins] asks how people can get in touch with the performers, their phones start ringing. I ask [our guests] for a progress report and most everyone that comes here, they’ll tell me their phone didn’t stop ringing all day. That just makes me feel so good.