Waddles, Charleszetta (1912–2001)

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Waddles, Charleszetta (1912–2001)

African-American religious leader and humanitarian . Name variations: Reverend Mother Charleszetta Waddles; Mother Waddles; Charleszetta Lena Campbell. Born Charleszetta Lena Campbell on October 7, 1912, in St. Louis, Missouri; died July 12, 2001, in Detroit, Michigan; daughter of Henry Campbell and Ella (Brown) Campbell; educated only until age 12; married three times, first to Clifford Walker (died around 1922); last husband was Payton Waddles (died 1980); children: ten.

Moved to Detroit (1940s); opened a "thirty-five cent restaurant" in Detroit (1950); opened her own church, the Perpetual Help Mission (1950s); was ordained a Pentecostal minister; established ten nonprofit urban missions, including two in Africa; wrote several books, including two cookbooks; received more than 300 awards and honors; was the subject of PBS documentary Ya Done Good (1989).

Charleszetta Campbell, known as Mother Waddles, was born in 1912 in St. Louis, Missouri, the oldest of Henry Campbell and Ella Brown Campbell 's seven children and one of three to survive beyond childhood. Her family sank into poverty during her early years, and she was forced to leave school at 12, after her father's death, to help support the family. Waddles' experience of watching her father "stand on corners, for hours at a time," demoralized and socially ostracized because of his unemployment, made a lasting impression that was to inform her life's work with the poor and underprivileged.

Married and a mother by the age of 14, Waddles was "treated like a little toy" by her first husband, Clifford Walker, who was 19 when they married and "not what he said he was." Widowed before she turned 20, Waddles married again the following year, this time to a man twice her age who moved the family to Detroit. She eventually left him, returning to St. Louis with her seven children to help care for her ailing mother. After her mother's death and another unhappy relationship with a man in St. Louis, Charleszetta returned to Detroit. She eventually married for the third time, to Payton Waddles, while she and her children—numbering nine at this point—were living on welfare in Detroit. Raising money for a church function, she met Payton when he stopped by to sample her barbecue. "I've never been back on welfare," she said after his death in 1980, "and I'm still living off the love that he gave me."

In 1950, Waddles opened a "thirty-five cent restaurant," where all the meals cost just 35 cents, and she did all the cooking and laundry. Many restaurant patrons paid more than the asking price for their food in order to help subsidize the venture—sometimes as much as $3 for a cup of coffee. Every customer, regardless of how much they paid, was offered the same food choices and same quality of service.

At age 36, before meeting her third husband, Waddles had a vision that told her to "create a church that had a social conscience, that would feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take folks in from outdoors." In the mid-1950s, she opened her own church, the Perpetual Help Mission, founded on the principles of charity and humanitarianism. Ordained as a Pentecostal minister, Waddles focused her considerable energy, creativity and drive on the plight of the needy, eventually establishing ten nonprofit urban missions, including two in Africa, assisting thousands of people with job training, health care, food distribution, budgeting and emergency aid. To help raise money for the work of the missions, Mother Waddles wrote several books, with subjects including philosophy and self-esteem; her two cookbooks sold more than 85,000 copies.

Believing that dignity did not have to be a casualty of poverty, Mother Waddles dedicated her life to feeding, guiding, educating and empowering her constituency of urban poor, with particular concern for the black community. Her work has been recognized with more than 300 awards and honors, and she was the subject of a 1989 PBS documentary called Ya Done Good. Recovering from a recent heart attack, Mother Waddles died on July 12, 2001, in her Detroit apartment.


Obituary, The Detroit Free Press, July 20, 2001.

Obituary, The Detroit News, July 13, 2001.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York

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