The Rev. Dr. Evelyn C. Graves, 87, who founded the Evelyn Graves Ministries Church, a drama productions company, a drama school, and a private Christian school in Southwest Philadelphia, died in her sleep Sunday, Jan. 30, at her home in Folcroft, Delaware County.
Her drama company has performed in theaters and festivals around the United States and in the Caribbean, South Korea, and South Africa, among other countries.
She created dozens of programs to serve the community: a day-care center, employment services, a monthly food bank, clothing drives, and programs to assist people without homes and those suffering with drug and alcohol addictions.
She also worked to quell Philadelphia’s gang violence in the 1960s and ’70s, said Cassandra Graves, the assistant pastor at her mother’s church, now located in Yeadon.
“She was a loving and caring mother,” her daughter said. “She taught us good principles. She always told us, ‘We are servants of the people.’”
Rev. Graves received numerous awards recognizing both her artistic and humanitarian works, including honors from Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
A 1995 citation from Clinton read in part: “You have inspired artists and delighted fans across America. I applaud you for your many contributions to our society.”
Obama awarded her a certificate of appreciation in 2015, and in 2016 a portion of Woodland Avenue was renamed “Dr. Evelyn Graves Way.”
Evelyn Graves Drama Productions, a community-based arts program that began at the Kingsessing Recreation Center in 1971, started out performing at schools, churches, community centers, and universities throughout the Philadelphia region.
The company went on to stage plays at the Academy of Music and in theaters and festivals in New York, South Carolina, California, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa.
“We once performed 110 plays in one year,” Cassandra Graves said.
Among the graduates of the Evelyn Graves Christian Academy, which opened in 1981, was television and theater actor Chaz Lamar Shepherd.
Rev. Graves’ interest in theater began when she coordinated Easter and Christmas plays at churches over the years.
She wrote many of the plays she produced. In addition, she presented works by Langston Hughes and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
One of her plays, Behold the Man, about the Crucifixion of Christ, was presented on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian-based television network.
Her daughter said her mother had not studied theater in college.
“Her skills were absolutely God-sent,” Cassandra Graves said. “They came from above.”
In the 1990s, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia & Vicinity and a Korean community organization were working to ease ethnic tensions between Black Americans and Asian Americans. The organizations invited Rev. Graves to take five Black and five Korean American young actors to perform in Seoul.
Her daughter said Rev. Graves was not afraid to work with Philadelphia gang members.
“One day, my brother told my mother that she shouldn’t take her play to this one area because there was going to be a gang war that night,” Cassandra Graves said.
“At that time, they didn’t have guns, they had knives, sticks, and chains. But she came with a message of love in her drama, and they literally dropped their weapons to the ground.”
Evelyn Cassandra Williams Graves was born July 11, 1934, in Marion, S.C., to Jethro and Alice Williams. She was the ninth of 10 children.
She met John Wesley Graves at a football game while in high school. They married in 1952, the year she graduated from Marion High.
Not long after, they moved to Philadelphia and reared six children on Divinity Street in Southwest Philadelphia. They were wed 56 years until Mr. Graves died in 2008.
Rev. Graves worked in communications and medical records at Mercy Douglass Hospital.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University through an extension program, studied at Jameson Bible Institute, and earned doctorate degrees in philosophy and theology from United Theological Seminary.
Cassandra Graves said her mother established her church at 5447 Chester Ave. in the city’s Kingsessing section in 1976.
While the church later relocated to Yeadon, the performing arts programs, day-care center, and other programs remained on Chester Avenue.
In addition to her daughter, Rev. Graves is survived by three other daughters, Melinda Graves-Story, R. Jean Jones, and Renee Nance; two sons, John Wesley and Derrick; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
A viewing is planned for 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13, at Evelyn Graves Ministries Church, 1115 Whitby Ave., Yeadon, Pa. 19050.
Another viewing will take place 8 to 9:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 14, with a funeral at 10 a.m., at the Church of Christian Compassion, 6121 Cedar Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19026.
Burial will be at Arlington Cemetery, Drexel Hill. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Evelyn Graves Ministries Church, P.O. Box 5314, Yeadon, Pa. 19050.