UC to archive documents proving local civil rights activist wrote iconic hymn

Kevin Grace (left) and Eric Abercrumbie (right) dig through the authentic documents proving Louise Shropshire wrote the original version of the iconic gospel song “We Shall Overcome.” The documents are in the process of being archived in UC’s Rare Book Library.

More than half a century after penning the original version of one of the most iconic gospel songs in U.S. history, Louise Shropshire is getting the recognition she was denied during her life. And now the authentic documents proving her authorship are back home to be preserved at the University of Cincinnati.

“When you think of American songs, the two with the most impact when it comes to our heritage and our pride and independence, it has to be ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘We Shall Overcome,’” said Kevin Grace, head of the archives and rare books library at UC, where the documents are in the process of being preserved.

For decades the origin of the iconic gospel song “We Shall Overcome” was unknown.

In 1960, American folksinger Pete Seeger copyrighted the song as a “derivative work,” taking both the glory and the profits.

“The history related to this song is just so connected to a lot of what happened in America to the poor black community,” said Eric Abercrumbie, executive director of diversity and community relations for student affairs. “So much was taken and used by other people. So that’s the claim in this. It’s that Pete Seeger and others took the song and got the royalties from it, knowing that they did not write it.”

Some of the exact same lyrics in Shropshire’s song, “If My Jesus Wills” were in “We Shall Overcome,” which also had a similar tempo and melody.

Those shared lyrics eventually morphed into a main theme of the U.S. civil rights movement.

Seeger, who died in late January, said in a 2006 interview, “Nobody knows exactly who wrote the original.”

But empirical evidence started surfacing around 2005 that proved Shropshire wrote the song.

Shropshire, a black Baptist choir director, copyrighted a hymn titled “If My Jesus Wills” on July 13, 1954.

Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Louise Shropshire was heavily involved in the civil rights movement and occasionally hosted prominent leaders at her home in Mt. Auburn several blocks from UC.

 “There was a night that Martin Luther King was in Cincinnati,” said Robert Shropshire, Louise Shropshire’s grandson.  “There was no hotel for him to stay at, so as he would normally do when he came to Cincinnati, he would stay at my grandparents’ house. After dinner that night, they gathered around the piano and started singing her songs.”

When King heard “If My Jesus Wills” he was so touched by the lyrics that he wanted to incorporate the song into the civil rights movement, Robert Shropshire said.

His only stipulation being that the words change from “I’ll Overcome” to “We’ll Overcome.”

“She wasn’t going to tell him no, so she allowed him to do that,” Robert Shropshire said. “But there is no known history of him making reference to ‘We Shall Overcome’ before that conversation took place.”

Shortly after King started using the lyrics to promote equal rights, the song “We Shall Overcome” surfaced under the ownership of Seeger.

Though Louise Shropshire reluctantly accepted the fact that she would never be recognized for the song, it wasn’t until after her death in 1993, that Robert Shropshire took it upon himself to try to insert her name into American history.

“She was very vocal about it,” Robert Shropshire said. “It was not anything she was quiet about because she understood that the world did not know that she was the author, and she didn’t really understand how it got out like that and her name not be associated with it.”

The evening of her death, Louise confided in Robert Shropshire and made a specific statement that would compel him to embark on the journey that would bring the song’s true origin to light, he said.

Robert Shropshire enlisted the aid of his friend, Isaias Gamboa, and the two of them set out to prove the authorship of what National Public Radio considers one of the greatest American songs of the twentieth century.

“When [Isaias] started his research, he set out to disprove it. And in him trying to disprove it, he realized that he had proved that she really was the author,” Robert Shropshire said. “So once we were secure in having all the evidence to prove her authorship, we set out to inform the public.”

Gamboa eventually wrote a book titled, “We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil’s Tongue” that compiled enough evidence to prove that Louise Shropshire was in fact, the creator of the song.

Gamboa said he took the song to a copyright attorney to confirm its unlawful use by Seeger. The attorney told Gamboa it would be difficult since the song was listed as having no original author. However, after comparing Louise Shropshire’s copyright to that of Pete Seeger, it was determined that the song had been unlawfully obtained.

After enough evidence was gathered to legally verify Louise Shropshire’s authorship, Robert Shropshire and Gamboa contemplated where the collection of documents should be preserved.

They considered places such as Hebrew Union College, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, but ultimately decided on UC.

The authentic documents, which include her original sheet music and pictures of her standing alongside prominent figures such as King, are now being curated and stored in UC’s Rare Books and Archives Library.

“It made sense,” said Robert Shropshire, the keeper of his grandmother’s artifacts. “When it was said to me that it would be a good idea to let UC — my father’s alma mater — preserve it, I immediately agreed. It was very exciting for me to hand it over like that. Cincinnati is the birthplace for ‘We Shall Overcome’ and it should be held there. I can think of no better place for it to be preserved.”

Though Louise Shropshire’s documentation of the song has yet to be fully processed, the documents will be available to the public Sept. 1, 2014.

“We’re really happy to get this, because we feel like we can do the best job of telling the story and preserving the history,” Abercrumbie said. “The family thinks very highly of UC. I think when they looked at it, they liked the idea of saying their grandmother’s artifacts are at the University of Cincinnati.”