Telling the Stories of our Lives: Myrtle Appling

Funded by a generous grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission in partnership with Puget Sound Book Artists, Anthea Karanasos Hubanks and Tacoma Seniors Write launched a series of creative writing workshops titled “Telling the Stories of Our Lives” at three Tacoma Senior Centers. The workshops consisted of a fun medley of classes for Elders interested in telling their stories through memoir, prose, letters, haiku, work collage, travelogues, and prose. In March 2020, as Washington State senior centers closed temporarily in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Anthea restructured the project. In place of the workshops, she conducted a series of phone interviews with five workshop participants — Myrtle Appling, Orv Harrelson, Barbara Jones, Constancio Bolima, and An Gates — and produced the following vignettes from the interviews. This is Myrtle Appling’s story.

On a rainy Sunday in November, I had the pleasure of speaking with longtime Tacoma resident and world-touring chorister, Myrtle Appling. When I called, Myrtle had just arrived home from church. At 95 years young, Myrtle has lived a life filled with wonderful experiences and I am so grateful she took the time to share some of her stories with me.

Born in Martinsville, Virginia in 1925, Myrtle was raised by her grandmother after her mother died when Myrtle was sixteen months old. Her grandmother lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina then moved to Greensboro where Myrtle’s creative talents blossomed early. In her grandmother’s care she grew into young adulthood and attended school in Greensboro where she also began singing in the church choir. Throughout her life, Myrtle’s gift as a vocalist was nurtured as a member of church communities and choirs.

Wings Over Jordan, 1940
Myrtle Appling, front right

After graduating from high school in the early 1940s, Myrtle auditioned with Wings Over Jordan, a renowned “African American choir that made broadcast history with the first independently produced national and international radio programs created by African Americans. In 1937 the ensemble performed weekly on radio station WGAR, a CBS affiliate, and soon became a hit.” After Myrtle’s audition, she was hired as a member of the choir and sang in their Sunday morning radio show. As a contralto singer, Myrtle traveled to all fifty states throughout her years with Wings Over Jordan. When asked if the touring schedule was overly demanding, Myrtle laughed and said: “When you’re young, you don’t think about that!”

During Myrtle’s seven years with the choir, Wings Over Jordan toured overseas during World War II entertaining U.S. Troops in Italy. “It took ten days to get there,” Myrtle recalled, “and the troopship we traveled on in 1945 dodged submarines nine out of ten of those days. But they didn’t tell us about dodging submarines until we got there!” When the choir arrived safely in Italy, the singers went ashore and performed for the troops several times. Myrtle still remembers the beauty of the place, especially Naples and Rome.” When asked if she felt at all frightened being in Italy during wartime, Myrtle replied, “I was young. So no, not really. It’s weird. We didn’t even think about it. I guess we were lucky because we were 25 miles from the front line. We heard about German’s taking prisoners and I suppose if I had been older, I would have been scared to death. But it just seemed normal to us at that time.” What Myrtle loved most about touring in Italy was knowing that the choir’s music brought joy to the troops.

Duke Ellington

Upon arriving back to the States, Myrtle continued singing with Wings Over Jordan, and shortly after returning from Europe, she had the luck of meeting Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton in Denver, Colorado. Wings Over Jordan was staying in the same hotel as Ellington and his band. During a concert, Ellington heard Myrtle’s beautiful contralto voice, after which he offered to hire her as a member of his band. Myrtle shared that Ellington told her she had a “nice blues voice.” Myrtle turned down his offer and told him, “I don’t sing the blues. I only perform Christian music.” 

After seven years touring with Wings Over Jordan, Myrtle settled into life back in Greensboro where she met her husband. The couple married while he attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, an historically Black research university in Greensboro, where he studied tailoring. The young family began to grow. Myrtle gave birth to their first son and a year later, identical twin boys were born to the Applings. 

In 1951, Myrtle, her husband, and their three sons moved from Greensboro to Tacoma, Washington. Myrtle said that of all the places she visited while touring the country with Wings Over Jordan, she liked Tacoma the best and has not for one moment regretted their move to the Pacific Northwest. While on tour, Myrtle noticed that Tacoma felt like “a nice, quiet place to live,” unlike Seattle which felt too busy and bustling for Myrtle’s taste. She was attracted by Tacoma’s “hometown feel” which she has enjoyed for nearly 70 years. An unforeseen benefit Myrtle continues to appreciate is the mild Northwest weather, compared with North Carolina’s severe storms, extreme heat, and high humidity. In short order, the Applings bought a home and Myrtle gave birth to three more children — all daughters this time. While her husband ran his tailoring business from their home and worked as a foreman at the ASARCO smelter, Myrtle raised and cared for their six children. Through the years, the Appling boys attended Stadium High School and the Appling girls attended Mount Tahoma High school.

Myrtle found a new church home and began singing in the choir there. Myrtle calls herself a homebody and says she has always enjoyed spending time with her family. As a young homemaker in the days before supermarkets, Myrtle rode the bus to downtown Tacoma where she shopped at the open-front grocery stores that lined Market Street. The bus dropped her off on Pacific Avenue and she walked up the hill. When Myrtle sees that hill now, she says she can barely believe she made the steep trek on foot.  Myrtle’s family now includes several grandchildren and great grandchildren. Together, they will celebrate her 96th birthday in April of 2021. Amid the current restrictions and health risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic, Myrtle is very grateful to still live in her own home and that all of her children are close by. To this day, Myrtle spends her free time on church activities. Of course, that includes singing in the choir on Sundays. 

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