Skip directly to content

Mary Inez Booth

Benjamin Baker, University of Maryland
For more than 40 years, Mary Inez Lang Booth (1913-2010) was a professor of music at Oakwood University and directed a ministry for the incarcerated in Huntsville, Madison County. In 1983 and 2003, Booth was made an honorary deputy sheriff in Huntsville. Mayor Loretta Spencer proclaimed July 26, 2003, "Inez Booth Day" in Huntsville in honor of Booth's 90th birthday. In 2010, she received an honorary doctorate from Oakwood University.
Mary Inez Lang Booth, known throughout her life as Inez, was born on July 26, 1913, in Mobile, Mobile County, to Nelson Edward Lang and Eloise Alexander Lang. Her mother died when she was one, and Inez was raised by her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, Mary and Alice Shines, respectively, until 1920, when her father married Pearl Osborne. Shortly after, the Langs relocated to Santa Barbara, California, where Nelson Lang worked as a handyman and porter for a hotel. The family grew in California, and Inez was joined by four brothers and a sister.
As a child, Inez distinguished herself as a piano player, playing for the choir at her local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. She studied music at Pacific Union College, a small Seventh-day Adventist college in Napa County, California, and became a Seventh-day Adventist during her junior year. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in music in 1937 and for two years following graduation played the pipe organ for the Bethel AME church, the oldest black church in San Francisco.
In 1939, Inez accepted a teaching job at Oakwood Academy Elementary in Huntsville, then briefly was the dean of women for Oakwood Junior College (present-day Oakwood University). She was soon hired by the Music Department at Oakwood Junior College and was named the director of the college choir and organist for the college church, holding the latter position for the next 40 years. In the early 1940s, Inez began giving private piano lessons, eventually instructing hundreds from Oakwood and the wider community. In 1945, she married Albert Sidney Booth, who was the sole African American to own a photography studio in Huntsville and was the official photographer for Oakwood College (the school dropped "Junior" in 1944). The Booths had two daughters.
Inez Booth was chair of the Oakwood College Music Department from 1951 to 1968, and then from 1972 to 1983. During her first tenure in 1954 she earned a master of arts in music and music education from Columbia University in New York City, focusing on the organ. The Music Department flourished under Booth, with notable professors such as Eva B. Dykes, the first African American woman to complete the requirements for a doctoral degree (later awarded by Radcliffe College in 1921); Alyne Dumas Lee, internationally renowned lyric soprano; Jon Robertson, who was lauded by the New York Times at age nine and trained at Juilliard; and scores of students who went on to distinguished musical careers. In 1983, Booth retired from the Music Department, being the longest-serving professor of music at any single Adventist college or university.
Booth also became widely known in Huntsville for her efforts outside of music. In 1952, she began visiting the racially segregated Madison County Jail in Huntsville, with the Oakwood College Church and, a small group of Adventists who put on a worship service for prisoners of all races. A few years after she joined the ministry, Booth became the leader of the band.
For 54 years. Booth visited the Huntsville jails each week, rarely missing a Saturday. Throughout those years, the jail band fluctuated in participants from 5 to 20, but Booth was always a constant. On a typical Saturday afternoon, Booth and her band would visit the city's courthouse jail and the Madison County Sheriff's Office, putting on numerous services of 15 minutes each to hundreds of waiting inmates. Each service featured musical selections, a sermonette, a word of affirmation from Booth, testimonials from prisoners, religious literature, snacks, and personal visitations.
A diminutive woman who was referred to by prisoners as "Mamma" or "Gramma Booth," Booth became a force in the Huntsville judicial and legal communities, advocating for prisoners to receive lighter sentences and a second chance. She accrued approximately 3,000 letters from prisoners over the years, thanking her for her support and encouragement. In 1994, she published her memoirs in a volume called 40 Years Behind Bars. In the last years of leading the jail band, Booth would visit the prisoners in a walker and then a wheelchair. She only stopped going to jail in 2006 when she became too infirm. The jail band continues today.
Booth served on the Madison County Sheriff's Committee and a term in 1982 as president of Alabama Volunteers in Correction, a group that coordinated volunteer efforts for prison and jails in the state. In addition to the honorary degree and deputy sheriff honors, she also received the Huntsville City Council Award (1991), was named a J. L. Moran Alumni Honoree at Oakwood College (2001), and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the United Christian Artists Association (2010).
Booth died a beloved figure in Huntsville at age 97 on August 3, 2010, and was buried in the Oakwood Memorial Gardens Cemetery on the campus of Oakwood University.

Additional Resources

Booth, Mary Inez. 40 Years Behind Bars. Birmingham, Ala.: N.p., 1994.
Gattis, Paul. "Inez Booth Made a Lifetime Out of Reaching Those in Jail." Al.com, August 14, 2010.
Vaught, Seneca. "Inez Booth." In The Ladies of Oakwood, edited by Ciro Sepulveda and Lea Hardy, 69-82. Huntsville, Ala.: Oakwood College Press, 2003.
Published:  August 30, 2019   |   Last updated:  August 30, 2019