Nearly every African-American community has its “Mother” or “Queen Mother,” who has dedicated her life to preserving both her people’s present welfare and her enduring legacy. The huge billboards along I-94 in Detroit reminded me of the city’s famed Mother Waddles. Emblazoned on the billboards was a request that people donate their cars to her charitable crusade, one that had been in effect for years.
Mother Waddles was born Charleszetta Lena Campbell, Oct. 7, 1912, in St. Louis, Mo. The oldest of seven children, she was the daughter of a successful barber, Henry Campbell, whose business was ruined after he cut the hair of a customer with a contagious skin disease. Because he used unsterilized tools, the disease spread to other customers, many of them members of his church. He died when Waddles was 12.
Waddles was a very good student, but quit school to provide for her family. Shortly after dropping out of school, she found work as a sorter in a rag factory, and later, in 1924, she became pregnant but was deserted by her boyfriend.
She was 21 in 1933 when she married LeRoy Wash, a truck driver. Together, they had six children, and the family moved to Detroit in 1936. Nine years later the couple were divorced and Waddles entered a common-law marriage with Roosevelt Sturkey, and she had three more children. In 1950, she married Payton Waddles, who worked for the Ford Motor Company.
Despite having a large family to raise, Waddles began an intense study of the Bible and later was ordained as a minister in the First Pentecostal Church. Later, she was re-ordained in the International Association of Universal Truth. From her ministry evolved a concern for the poor and downtrodden, and she founded the Helping Hand Restaurant in Detroit’s most depressed neighborhood. Much like her predecessors, Daddy Grace and Father Divine, she offered meals for 35 cents in dining quarters with well-appointed tables and uniformed waitresses.
At the inception of the restaurant, the now Mother Waddles was chief cook and bottle-washer, so to speak, with the additional duty of doing the laundry. But soon she was joined by a corps of volunteers. It wasn’t long before the restaurant’s food and her reputation spread beyond the city, and visitors paraded to her establishment as they do to Sylvia’s in Harlem.
Providing provision for the destitute was Waddles’ calling card, and for more than 40 years she oversaw what became her perpetual mission, earning her acclaim and honors from a broad array of organizations and institutions.
By 1956, the restaurant, now called the Perpetual Mission, expanded its mission of saving souls of all nations. Along with the thousands who sought out her food and charity were countless volunteers, all empowered by their leader’s devotion to serve the underprivileged.
Inevitably, the Perpetual Mission began to include a number of outreach programs and classes. Clerical skills such as typing, shorthand and filing, along with dressmaking and machine operations, were just a few of the courses taught at the Perpetual Mission. Also, a free medical clinic, job placement and counseling were available to the more industrious of those seeking Waddles’ services.
In an interview with Newsweek magazine, she said, “We’re trying to show what the church could mean to the world if it lived by what it preached. I read the Bible. It didn’t say just go to church. It said, ‘Do something.’”
Waddles, into her ’80s, was still very active at the Perpetual Mission, and she rarely refused a call of desperation, no matter the time. “We give a person the things he needs, when he needs them,” she often told reporters. “We take care of him whether he’s an alcoholic or a junkie, Black or white, employed or unemployed. We don’t turn anyone away.”
She was featured in 1989 PBS half-hour documentary “Ya Done Good,” about her tireless commitment to the needy. The documentary highlighted the work she had done to salvage those who had “fallen through the cracks.” According to Daphe Boyd Kilgore, who produced the documentary, there was interest to pursue her life in a series and a possible motion picture. That never occurred, but her legacy did continue through other interviews and her books of inspiration and cuisine.
During one of her many interviews, she recounted, “I fell down and broke my pelvic bone and they said ‘Well, she won’t walk.’ The newspapers were rolling it off the press. TV folks were coming. After two weeks, I was sitting up on the side of the bed.” That’s when she said she heard the word of the Lord and got up from the bed and continued her mission.
Her induction into the Michigan Hall of Fame is just one of the many tributes and salutes she received over the years. Among her vast collection of awards are the Sojourner Truth Award, the Religious Heritage Award and the Humanitarian Award. Articles about her have appeared in practically all of the major African-American publications, including Ebony, Essence, Jet and the Michigan Chronicle, and few noted mainstream publications, such as Life magazine.
More than anything, Waddles has given life and hope to legions of people at the end of opportunity with nowhere to turn. When she began asking people to donate their cars to her organization, it was with an understanding that it was a charitable, tax-deductible enterprise.
That campaign continues today, although she died at age 88, July 12, 2001. She is buried in the Detroit’s historic Elmwood Cemetery.