A. Grace Lee Mims, Community Arts Leader


The special distinction A. Grace Lee Mims enjoys in Cleveland’s Arts community was earned by living a life committed to music, family and the contributions of African Americans to culture, history and the arts. In 1976, Grace contacted Robert Conrad at Cleveland’s classical radio station WCLV and suggested a program devoted to black classical music and musicians. Conrad agreed and listened to her trial program about Jessye Norman, the great opera singer and recitalist. “Bob told me, ‘Grace, you must be committed to this for six months,’” she recalls with a laugh. “I’ve been hosting and producing it every week since for 35 years!”

In 1979, Conrad was so pleased with The Black Arts, as the weekly program was to be named, that he asked her to create a second, separate program called Artslog, a five- minute show featuring artists from a variety of disciplines that would become a fixture on the airwaves until 2010.

While many people know Mims from her broadcasting endeavors, her contributions to the arts scene are much greater. A gifted singer, she was the soprano soloist at Fairmount Presbyterian Church for 20 years. She also performed with her own ensemble, A. Grace Lee Mims and Friends, and appeared as soprano soloist with the William Appling Singers and the New York Bass Violin Choir, whose performance venues included Lincoln Center and the Newport Jazz Festival, as well as with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Chamber Chorus under the legendary Robert Shaw.

Grace and her siblings, who were all talented musicians, formed their own jazz-folk ensemble, The Descendants of Mike and Phoebe, that traveled and performed around the country. They had named the ensemble to honor two of their slave forebears whose daunting struggles they had learned about as children. “My grandfather told us, ‘If Mike as a slave did as much as he did to keep his family together, how much more should we as free blacks do for our people?’”

Born in Snow Hill, Alabama, A.Grace Lee graduated valedictorian from Snow Hill Institute, which had been founded by her grandfather, William J. Edwards, a student of Booker T. Washington. Today, she still treasures the fact that she grew up in a musical home: Her father worked as an electrician but was also an accomplished coronet player, and her mother was a classically trained pianist. “My father loved playing Sousa and was a band master, and my mother would play Chopin and Brahms on our piano in the living room,” she fondly recalls. “We also sang spirituals at home, in our church and at the Institute; so I grew up steeped in great music.”

After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Voice from Hampton University, Grace Lee came to Cleveland to obtain her Master’s in Library Science from Western Reserve University. After settling permanently in Cleveland with her husband, Howard A. Mims, Ph.D., who would become a beloved professor at Cleveland State University, where he headed the Black Studies Department, she became head librarian at Glenville High School. There she built one of the most comprehensive libraries of African-American culture and history in Ohio and founded the school’s Black Arts Festival. She was also instrumental in designing a 14-lecture elective course on African-American history and culture that was the first multicultural curriculum instituted in a Cleveland public school.

Grace Mims also counts among her contributions long and dedicated service on the boards of trustees of the Cleveland Institute of Music and numerous other arts-related boards including, until last year, the steering committee the Cleveland Arts Prize. She has been a member of the voice faculty of the Music Settlement since 1980.

She has received numerous awards, including the Outstanding Music Alumnus Award from Hampton University. She and Howard initiated and chaired the Cleveland Hampton Alumni Benefit, which has provided more than 100 Cleveland area students with scholarships to attend Hampton. In 1999, in recognition of her commitment to education and the arts, Cleveland State University awarded Mims an honorary doctorate of music.

Though retired from singing professionally, she remains committed to the preservation and teaching of the Negro spiritual. The album she herself recorded, entitled simply Spirituals, remains a classic recording, and she is considered an authority on the performance of the Spiritual by the solo voice. In 2010, she established with the Cleveland Foundation the A. Grace Lee Mims Vocal Scholarship to preserve the Spiritual.

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org