Gaye Adegbalola – Woman, Activitist, Musician, History Maker
By her own definition, Gaye Adegbalola is a griot. It’s how she describes herself in writing and in talks she’s given on her storied time in Fredericksburg. A griot is a traveling poet, musician and storyteller who maintains the West African tradition of oral history. Through her stories, her community action and her music, Adegbalola has continuously shaped history for the better locally—and still continues the tradition of truth telling.
“By the end of the summer, all stores except for People’s desegregated their lunch counters. We’d really hit them in their pocketbooks. Even the theaters, where we had to sit in the balcony and eat the stale popcorn, agreed to desegregate.”
-written by Gaye in 1960 at age 16.
Early on, she strove for a better future for the Black residents of Fredericksburg. She was among the Fredericksburg students who, inspired by the sit-ins started in Greensboro, sat peacefully at lunch counters. That change was affected by her and her fellow students on July 30 when the local Woolworth’s lunch counter was desegregated.
Her upbringing instilled in her a drive for Civil Rights. Adegbalola’s mother, Gladys P. Todd, was a key organizer of the sit-in movement in Fredericksburg. Her father Clarence R. Todd was the first Black school board member here. They also instilled a love for music in her, since Clarence was a jazz musician and Gladys was an audiophile.
“I am reclaiming my royalty.”
-the meaning of her surname, Adegbalola, which was given to her by a Yoruba priest she met in 1968. She uses the name to signify pride in her Black heritage.
She graduated as valedictorian of the then-segregated Walker-Grant High School and went on to Boston University. Her career as a biochemical researcher and a bacteriologist took her to New York City in the late 1960’s and she became involved in the Black Power Movement there.
In the early ’70s, she came back to the city of Fredericksburg and began teaching. She earned her Master’s in education and was an educator in the Fredericksburg City Public School system for 18 years. She was honored as Virginia State Teacher of the Year in 1982.
“. . .songs in which a liberated woman looks on love with the rueful eye of experience and the saving grace of good humor.”-The Washington Post
In the 80s, while singing the blues in local barrooms, Gaye began to write her own songs. Along with writing songs, she sings, plays acoustic guitar and slide guitar, and plays harmonica.
She is notably a founding member of Saffire – the Uppity Blues Women, and with that 1984 move, became a full-time performer. In 1990, the band won the Song of the Year W.C. Handy Award for their song “Middle Age Blues Boogie,” which tells the story of a sexually liberated middle-aged woman, looking for a younger man. Music took her on tours around the world and Adegbalola has 16 recordings in distribution, including six on her own label, Hot Toddy Music.
For her empowerment, activism and drive for education, Adegbalola was honored as one of the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Women in History for 2018. Her story—which is still unfolding—connects music with Civil Rights and womanhood. She’s a roving storyteller and a hometown girl. Gaye Adegbalola is a woman who can’t be defined by one era or one role.
“Seeking Civil Rights” historic marker at the corner of William and Caroline Streets.
Mural featuring Gaye Adegbalola on the side of Sammy T’s (801 Caroline St.).
Find a performance or book here:
Watch Gaye Adegbalola talk about “Front Porch Blues”