Mabel Gary Philpot – or “Sister Gary” as she was known in the pulpit and on the air, came to WRAL-AM in the 1940s to host a gospel music program on Sunday evenings. She was the first African-American to host a regularly-scheduled radio show in Raleigh.
A native of Abingdon, Virginia, Sister Gary studied at and graduated from Knoxville College seminary in Tennessee. She preached her first sermon at age 17 before being ordained as a deacon and elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Sister Gary came to Raleigh in 1936 to preach at Grace Chapel AME Zion Church in Raleigh. Though Mabel Gary was only four-feet-eleven-inches tall—she gained a reputation as a powerful speaker who could move congregations and radio audiences alike.
Sister Gary was hired by then-WRAL-AM General Manager Fred Fletcher, who recalled in his book “Tempus Fugit” that she was not only an effective minister—she attracted radio listeners in large numbers: “One bit of worldly evidence about the power of Sister Gary’s program was in the ratings. They were usually good, and one period she beat WDNC’s Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.”
After more than two decades on radio, “The Sister Gary Spiritual Program” changed venues and moved to WRAL-TV in 1969. The new television program aired every Sunday morning from 7:30 – 8:00 and featured Gary’s sister Sandra Byrd and the Wesleyan TV Choir. The transition to television introduced Sister Gary to a larger audience and firmly established her place in the history of gospel music in North Carolina.
Following her death, Sister Gary’s television program evolved into WRAL-TV’s award-winning “Spiritual Awakening.” That gospel music program carries on to this day and is a weekly reminder of the trail blazed by Sister Gary. Sister Mabel Gary was recognized with numerous honors; she received a Certificate of Merit from St. Augustine’s College for outstanding work in the Community and in 1975 the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority honored her as Woman of the Year.
In June 1977 one of Sister Gary’s legs was amputated due to health reasons. A mere two weeks later she was back on the air hosting her Sunday morning program–a testament to her undying spirit and determination.
Sister Mabel Gary Philpot died July 8, 1978 following a bout of pneumonia. She was 72.