After years of neglect and nearly collapsing into a scrambled heap of rubble, and after decades of being in a state of unrestored limbo, the Gertrude “Ma” Rainey House in Columbus is finally all dressed up and ready to rock.
When Gertrude “Ma” Rainey ended her show business career in 1935 after a lifetime of performing on the road (born in 1886, she had been a professional performer since her mid-teens), she moved back to her hometown of Columbus. She settled into a home on Fifth Avenue, a two-story “shotgun” house that she had purchased a number of years earlier. Rainey lived in the house for less than five years. She died of heart failure Dec. 22, 1939, at just 53 years old.
Ma Rainey left behind a legacy as the “Mother of the Blues”—her place sealed as one of the most influential figures in the history of American music. During her heyday—from about 1900 until the early1930s—Rainey performed in hundreds of venues all across the East, South and Midwest. She was already a veteran stage performer with two decades of touring behind her when she made her first sound recordings in 1923 with Paramount Records. Between 1923 and 1928, she recorded nearly 100 songs. During her long career she tutored, sponsored, performed with, and recorded with many of the foremost pioneers of American blues and jazz—Louis Armstrong, Thomas A. Dorsey, Blind Blake, Tampa Red, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Dixon, Lovie Austin, Coleman Hawkins, Bessie Smith, Kid Ory and the list goes on.
However, by the early 1990s, a half-century after her untimely death, the name “Ma Rainey” was no longer a familiar one to most in her hometown. So when the idea of buying and preserving the Ma Rainey house as a black history museum was presented to the Columbus City Council in 1991, the councilors split their votes right down the middle, and along racial lines, half yea, half nay. The then-presiding mayor, a white attorney named Frank Martin, cast his deciding vote in favor of preservation, and the ramshackle house became Columbus city property.
That was just the beginning. The fragile, deteriorating house stood idle for another decade until 2002 when, assisted by Georgia U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop, the city of Columbus was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Save America’s Treasures fund, a preservation program of the federal government to assist local communities in the stabilization and restoration of nationally important historic properties and sites.
Guided by an all-volunteer committee led by African-American community leader Florine Dawkins, The Gertrude “Ma” Rainey House and Blues Museum was dedicated in 2005 and, once furnished, staffed and outfitted with newly designed exhibits, it was opened for public tours in November 2007.
Exhibits now on view in the Rainey Museum interpret the life and career of Ma Rainey and, in addition, trace the history and influences of the blues tradition of the lower Chattahoochee River Valley, a region for which Columbus is the population and cultural center. The Gertrude “Ma” Rainey House and Blues Museum is located at 803 Fifth Ave. in Columbus’ Liberty Historic District. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum is closed on Sundays. For more information or to schedule a group tour, call (706) 653-4960.
Fred C. Fussell serves as the curator of the Ma Rainey House in Columbus.