Jumbled, dirty, and hard to read, piles of gospel music papers and printing plates sat packed away for decades. Thanks to one curious historian and a park dedication, the musical talents of pioneering composer and publisher Charles Henry Pace are finally remembered.
Charles Henry Pace was born in Atlanta in 1886. He studied piano and trumpet. By 1910, he was conducting a band in Michigan and founding Pace Music House publishing company in Chicago. It was one of the country’s first independent black gospel music publishing companies.
Pace and his wife, Frankie, moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s. They sold gospel music and church literature out of a storefront. Artists came to Pace with their ideas. He would arrange, print, and publish their songs.
Pace was one of few people who knew how to fully print sheet music using photo negatives and metal plates mounted onto scrap wood. Experts say this method was key to the growth of gospel music.
He published arrangements by well-known songwriters of the day, including Charles Tindley, Thomas Dorsey, and Roberta Martin.
Pace’s daughter, Frances Pace Barnes, remembers how her father could turn a hum into a song. She never expected the decaying printing plates and papers he left to reveal a crucial part of gospel music history.
Turns out, her father was one of the first African-American gospel music composers in the United States.
“I didn’t know it was going to be a legacy,” Pace Barnes remarks.
Pace died in 1963. His music store was sold. The University of Pittsburgh library system bought 14 crates of memorabilia in 1999.
In 2017, music historian Christopher Lynch toured Pittsburgh’s first hub of black culture and art. He learned that a nearby park would be dedicated to Frankie, a community activist. Lynch’s curiosity set the Pace preservation project in motion.
Lynch began organizing, cleaning, and interpreting hundreds of printing plates and photographs in 2021. He believes Pace likely began composing in the jazz-gospel style even before Thomas Dorsey, who is often called the father of gospel music.
Lynch says his work is restoring actual history and giving credit where credit is due—a biblical idea found in Romans 13:7. Lynch says Pace rarely receives recognition even for his most-recorded songs. Instead, they’re listed as “traditional songs.”
Jesus said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) The verse explains why historian Kimberly Ellis calls Pace an “evangelist.” She says Pace “spread the good news, via music, from coast to coast.”
Why? Historical research can sometimes help right a wrong or uncover long-hidden truth—and that’s worth digging for! This example of a little-credited gospel music pioneer illustrates that principle.