The W. T. Gwin Old Harp Singers Trophy: A Unique Piece of Sacred Harp Memorabilia from Mississippi

An Unexpected Object on the Front Porch

A unique piece of Sacred Harp memorabilia came to light recently. On April 13 of this year, my wife Anne and I arrived at our home in Oxford, Mississippi, to find an unexpected object on our front porch: a large silver trophy cup with a detached base. A note inside indicated that it had come from our neighbor, Lee Uhlhorn, and had been presented to her great-grandfather, W. T. Gwin, a prominent Sacred Harp singer in Webster County. We decided to donate the trophy to the Sacred Harp Museum in Carrollton, Georgia, where it would add to the meager documentation of Sacred Harp in Mississippi.

Mississippi Sacred Harp Trophy

W. T. Gwin’s Sacred Harp trophy, along with a print of Ethel Wright Mohamed’s depiction of a Mississippi Sacred Harp singing, at the home of Warren and Anne Steel.

In the early twentieth century is was not unusual for Sacred Harp singers to compete at singing conventions, state fairs, and other events. This trophy cup was first awarded to the Webster County Old Harp Singers, representing the New Harmony Singing Convention of Webster County, for their performance in a community singing contest at the North Mississippi Fair, Grenada, Mississippi in October 1924. The winners of the trophy in turn presented it to W. T. Gwin in appreciation of forty years faithful service as Director. Gwin later became the first president of the Mississippi State Sacred Harp Singing Convention when it was organized in 1929. Both events were memorialized on the cup in handsome, stylized engravings.

After the trophy arrived, I attempted to find more information on Gwin, while the trophy was exhibited at three events before reaching the museum. On May 17, at the 141st annual singing at Concord Church in Calhoun County, the trophy was shown, and Lee Ulhorn, Mark Davis, and I led the song on page 36b in memory of Lee’s great-grandfather Gwin, who had led this song to begin the first Mississippi State Convention in 1929. On August 22, I brought the trophy to the Mississippi State Convention, of which Gwin had served as the first president; current president Mark Davis and I led the same song. Finally, on September 12, Anne and I carried the trophy to the United Sacred Harp Musical Convention in Atlanta, where I spoke a few words at the annual business meeting.

William Thomas Gwin

William Thomas Gwin

William Thomas Gwin,

William Thomas Gwin was born July 21, 1853 in Woodruff, Spartanburg County, South Carolina. He emigrated to Mississippi at a young age, where in 1874 he married Mississippi native Gennella Inez Pounds. They had seven children, born between 1875 and 1893. Gennella died in Eupora in 1915; Tom Gwin died in Eupora in 1934; both are buried in the Eupora City Cemetery. Gwin served as tax assessor for Webster County, and was an incorporator of Cumberland Normal Institute. Where he learned music is not known, but in 1883, he was the founding president of the New Harmony Singing Convention of Webster County; which he led for 52 years until his death.

On August 30, 1929, a group of singers met in Houston, Mississippi to organize a “State Singing Convention” to be held the following November. W. T. Gwin was elected temporary chairman. On 2 November, again in Houston, Gwin opened the convention by leading “the old song, ‘Ninety-Fifth,’ page 36, with much sentiment and force in poetry.” At the business meeting that afternoon, Gwin was elected the first President of the Mississippi State Sacred Harp Singing Convention. The following day, 3 November, prior to adjournment,

“the President and Convention sang that great and by all much beloved song, so full of hope and wonderful love, to-wit: “God be with you till we meet again”; with this great hope and sweet injunction the Mississippi State Sacred Harp Singing Convention closed its first great session, with her interest and hope of future success burning in the hearts of her officers and members, and the session will long be remembered and never forgotten, by all who were present and by those who in after years, may chance to read her proceedings, recorded in her book of records; long may she live and soon may her influence touch the minds, hearts and lives of every man, woman and child in our great State, and we will ever ascribe the honor and glory of it all to Him, who rules the destiny of man.”

Among Tom Gwin’s children, Lillie (1890–1955) became deaf in childhood, and attended Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. Theodosia (“Dosia,” 1875–1971) married Hilliard Earnest and was a lifelong Sacred Harp singer in Webster County. Another daughter, Minnie Mae (1885–1982), married Lee Harpole. The Harpoles had five daughters, all of whom became church musicians, including Minnie Lee (1907–2003), who married Edward Atkinson Pryor. Their daughter Lee Uhlhorn is likewise a church music director, and has preserved the trophy presented to her great grandfather W. T. Gwin.

About David Warren Steel

Warren Steel is professor of music emeritus at the University of Mississippi. He has sung in the Sacred Harp since 1972, and lived in Oxford, Mississippi since 1980. He edited the works of early American composers Stephen Jenks and Daniel Belknap. His The Makers of the Sacred Harp was published in 2010. He has taught at Camp Fasola and maintains an extensive web site for Sacred Harp singing. Steel also plays organ and harpsichord and performs with an early music ensemble.
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2 Responses to The W. T. Gwin Old Harp Singers Trophy: A Unique Piece of Sacred Harp Memorabilia from Mississippi

  1. Leslie Booher says:

    The Ethel Wright Mohamed stitchery behind the W. T. Gwin cup is also from Mississippi. Mrs. Mohamed was from Belzoni, Mississippi. She was a very interesting person. My husband David had the Episcopal church in Belzoni as part of a yoked parish. I knew Mrs. Mohamed to say “howdjado?”

    • Thanks for pointing that out, Leslie. When sending along the photograph Warren Steel made a similar point and also noted Ethel Wright Mohamed’s connection to Sacred Harp singing:

      Note that the famous Sacred Harp stitchery in the photo is relevant, since Ethel Wright Mohamed was a native of Webster County, where Gwin led the singings. Her uncle, J. P. Wright, was also present at the first state convention in 1929.

      Warren also hosts a page with a short essay by Ethel Wright Mohamed providing more information on the artwork.

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