Praying for Cissy

Posted by Al Hathaway Monday, July 27, 2015

During the late 80's I was the Executive Director of St. Pius Housing, an innovative community development organization in West Baltimore. It was one of the early affilates of James and Patty Rouse's Enterprise Foundation. I was proud to call them my friends and mentors. While many of our efforts to transform a neighborhood were idealistic, it was an eye opening experience for my understanding of how public policy, institutional racism, and disinvestment impacts a neighborhood and discriminates against its residents. Nevertheless, I was proud to work with a cadre of community, foundation, and public officials who were willing to at least try to make a difference.

A colleague recommended to me that I consider hosting a concert as a fundraiser and feature a gospel artist, Cissy Houston, as the guest talent. It was at that time a bold idea for a community based development organization. I accepted the challenge and began working with Ms. Cissy Houston as I made the arrangements to bring her to the Harlem Park community. As I reflect deeper, the year was 1985.

I would call Ms. Cissy Houston and talk with her about the logistics, songlist, and accompanying artists. I had a limited budget and was using as a venue the former St. Pius V Roman Catholic Church on the corner of Edmondson Avenue and Schroeder Streets. Through those conversations, I became a casual friend of Ms. Houston. Her husband, who she later divorced, was a housing official in New Jersey. Her daughter was a budding singer who after an early career in modeling just signed with Clive Davis as a soloist, Whitney Houston. Unbeknowst to members of the community, if the contract with Mr. Davis had not just been signed, Ms. Cissy Houston was going to bring her daughter, Whitney and her son along with her to back her up at the concert.

The Cissy Houston Concert was a big hit in the community and she performed before a packed church in West Baltimore. From those early conversations with her I became intrigued by this beautiful woman who sang as back up on major records throughout her career. Elvis Pressey confided in her to add soul to his songs and she with a background group sang on many of his hit records. He was so close to her that he gave her $40,000 to purchase her home in New Jersey, an amazing amount of money in those days. When Luther Vandross wanted the soul sound on his recordings he contacted Ms. Cissy Houston and the rest is history.

Ms. Cissy Houston was grounded in her church in New Jersey. She was an amazing woman of faith with talented children, talented relatives, and surrounded by talented friends. Her talent took her to places unheard of for an African American women of her time and era.

She was very proud of the solo career of Whitney Houston. Her daughter lived the life she dreamed of and commanded top dollar for her performances.

I join Cissy Houston in her sorrow. Losing her daughter, Whitney, too soon, and now her grandaughter, Bobbie Kristina Brown, at an early age as well.

I'm no longer close to her, so many years have passed. I'm unable to call her at home to express my sincere and deep sympathy. Cissy Houston has lived much of her life in the public arena and now her pain has to be played out in the public arena as well. This amazing woman who I befriended years ago, also introduced me to Lionel Hampton who planned to do a concert with me as well.

I grieve for Ms. Cissy Houston and pray that God will provide her some modicum of peace during this period of unspeakable pain.

I will never forget her generousity and willingness to support the cause of providing affordable housing to residents of West Baltimore a long time ago.

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