From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Olden, James Clarence "J. C."

(born: 1884  -  died: 1967) 

James C. Olden was a Baptist minister and civil rights leader in Louisville, KY. Born in Murfreesboro, TN, he was the son of George Olden, who had been enslaved in Oldham County, KY before running away to join the Union Army during the American Civil War. His son Rev. J. C. Olden came to Kentucky around 1949 and developed the Militant Church Movement (MCM) in Louisville. MCM was a civil rights organization that led many protest campaigns, including the Interracial Hospital Movement that initiated the desegregation of Kentucky hospitals in 1953.

Rev. Olden also led the 1953 effort to bring Everett Lee, Jr. [Sylvia Olden Lee's husband] to Louisville, where he become the first African American to direct a white orchestra and the first orchestra director to perform before an integrated audience in Louisville.

Rev. Olden had been a civil rights activist prior to coming to Kentucky; in 1948, while a visiting minister at Salem Methodist Church in Harlem, NY, he led a national campaign against segregation in transportation.

J. C. Olden was a graduate of Fisk University, where he sang in a quartet with Roland Hayes, Lem Foster, and Charles Wesley. He was second tenor in Hayes' Apollo Quartet in 1910.

In 1913, Olden married Sylvia Alice Ward (b. 1889 in New Orleans, LA), a pianist and vocalist; they had met while students at Fisk. Sylvia had turned down a singing position with the Metropolitan Opera in 1913 because the job came with the stipulation that she not tell anyone that she was Colored. Many years later, the first African American with the New York Metropolitan Opera would be Sylvia Olden Lee (1917-2004), musician, vocalist, and vocalist coach, the daughter of Sylvia and Rev. J. C. Olden. Sylvia Olden Lee grew up in Washington, D.C., where her father was pastor of the Plymouth Colored Congregational Church.

The Oldens were also international travelers. In 1926, Rev. Olden and his wife returned to the U.S. from Southampton, England aboard the ship Majestic, according to the New York Passenger Lists.

For more see To Stand and Fight, by M. Biondi; "Schiller Institute Dialogue with Sylvia Olden Lee, Pianist and Vocal Coach" 2/7/1998, [reprinted from Fidelio Magazine, vol. 7, issue 1 (Spring 1998)]; a photograph of James C. Olden and his then son-in-law Everett Lee in the Courier-Journal, "Black History Month | 1953 Everett Lee," 2/1/2010.

Kentucky County & Region

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Olden, James Clarence "J. C.",” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 14, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-07-05 17:45:36