Nearly every African-American community has its “Mother” or “Queen Mother,” who has dedicated her life to preserving both her people’s present welfare and her enduring legacy. The huge billboards along I-94 in Detroit reminded me of the city’s famed Mother Waddles. Emblazoned on the billboards was a request that people donate their cars to her charitable crusade, one that had been in effect for years.
Mother Waddles was born Charleszetta Lena Campbell, Oct. 7, 1912, in St. Louis, Mo. The oldest of seven children, she was the daughter of a successful barber, Henry Campbell, whose business was ruined after he cut the hair of a customer with a contagious skin disease. Because he used unsterilized tools, the disease spread to other customers, many of them members of his church. He died when Waddles was 12.
Waddles was a very good student, but quit school to provide for her family. Shortly after dropping out of school, she found work as a sorter in a rag factory, and later, in 1924, she became pregnant but was deserted by her boyfriend.
She was 21 in 1933 when she married LeRoy Wash, a truck driver. Together, they had six children, and the family moved to Detroit in 1936. Nine years later the couple were divorced and Waddles entered a common-law marriage with Roosevelt Sturkey, and she had three more children. In 1950, she married Payton Waddles, who worked for the Ford Motor Company.
Despite having a large family to raise, Waddles began an intense study of the Bible and later was ordained as a minister in the First Pentecostal Church. Later, she was re-ordained in the International Association of Universal Truth. From her ministry evolved a concern for the poor and downtrodden, and she founded the Helping Hand Restaurant in Detroit’s most depressed neighborhood. Much like her predecessors, Daddy Grace and Father Divine, she offered meals for 35 cents in dining quarters with well-appointed tables and uniformed waitresses.
At the inception of the restaurant, the now Mother Waddles was chief cook and bottle-washer, so to speak, with the additional duty of doing the laundry. But soon she was joined by a corps of volunteers. It wasn’t long before the restaurant’s food and her reputation spread beyond the city, and visitors paraded to her establishment as they do to Sylvia’s in Harlem.
Providing provision for the destitute was Waddles’ calling card, and for more than 40 years she oversaw what became her perpetual mission, earning her acclaim and honors from a broad array of organizations and institutions.
By 1956, the restaurant, now called the Perpetual Mission, expanded its mission of saving souls of all nations. Along with the thousands who sought out her food and charity were countless volunteers, all empowered by their leader’s devotion to serve the underprivileged.
Inevitably, the Perpetual Mission began to include a number of outreach programs and classes. Clerical skills such as typing, shorthand and filing, along with dressmaking and machine operations, were just a few of the courses taught at the Perpetual Mission. Also, a free medical clinic, job placement and counseling were available to the more industrious of those seeking Waddles’ services.