Celebrating Black History Month
African-Americans and Radio and Television
By Brian Belanger
Read below or download the article here.
The National Capital Radio & Television Museum celebrates Black History Month* with stories to illustrate the difficulties people of color faced in breaking into radio and early television, as well as their noteworthy achievements in the modern era.
Radio broadcasting to American homes began in the early 1920s, an era when strict segregation prevailed in much of the country. Ku Klux Klan groups were peaking in membership and could be found almost everywhere. African-Americans had limited opportunities for quality education and were unlikely to get bank loans to start businesses that might compete with established firms owned and controlled by whites. Given that climate, it is not surprising that books on radio and television history contain relatively few names of African-Americans who were prominent in this developing industry, either on the technical or performing sides. Yet some succeeded in spite of great obstacles. They deserve to be remembered.
There are three distinct historical periods to consider:
Prior to WWII
People of color were largely excluded from mainstream radio and television. From the start of entertainment radio until WWII, white station and network owners controlled radio. Audiences were assumed to be predominantly white. Little effort was made to tailor radio to Black audiences.
In 1923 RCA’s pioneer station WJZ in Newark aired a weekly half-hour program called “Negro Dialect Stories.” No doubt its humor was probably of the offensive minstrel show genre and was designed to appeal to white rather than Black audiences.
1940s to 1970
During the 1940s Black characters were often portrayed by white actors, but toward the end of this era, Black entertainers began to appear more frequently on the radio and on television. A few stations targeted African- American audiences, but white business owners continued to dominate the industry.
The Past 50 Years
African-Americans have succeeded in owning and operating radio and TV stations and networks, and providing content more specifically aimed at Black audiences. Of course today’s radio programs aimed at Black audiences also attract many enthusiastic whites. Today most major advertisers prefer to sponsor shows that appeal to diverse audiences and that avoid offending any particular group. Black performers (think Oprah Winfrey) have become immensely popular with people of all colors.
Dr. Rufus P. Turner
Rufus Turner was a prolific technical writer who explained radio technology to the nation. He began experimenting with radio at an early age, and while still in his teens won a prize for designing and building what was called “the smallest radio set in the world.” It was exhibited at the 1924 National Radio Show at Madison Square Garden in New York. He founded a radio club at Armstrong Technical Highschool in Washington, D.C. The school’s ham station W3LF was the first ham station licensed to a black operator.
Rufus P. Turner (1907-1982). Photo credit: www.blackhistory.mit.edu.
During Turner’s long career he wrote more than 30 widely read technical books about radio, and published more than 2000 articles in national publications such a Radio Electronics magazine. The museum library collection includes many of his well-written books.
He worked at Sylvania in the 1940s and helped to develop the ubiquitous 1N43 germanium diode, used in electronic devices ranging from crystal radios to radar sets.
Turner taught at the Universities of Rhode Island and Southern California. After a distinguished career in electronics, at age 52 he earned a doctorate in literature and became an English professor.
Charles Gilpin. Photo credit: New York Times Digital Collection.
White-owned radio stations in Boston occasionally provided airtime for people of color. WNAC aired music by Black musicians Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle at a time when that was unusual.
In the early 1920s Boston station 1XE, soon to become station WGI, broadcast the play The Emperor Jones featuring the well-known Black actor Charles Gilpin. In 1920 the Drama League of New York named Gilpin one of the ten best artists in American Theatre. A Black newspaper applauded this performance, calling it the first time a minority actor had been on the radio. He was posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, and his hometown of Richmond, VA, named a neighborhood Charles Gilpin Crossing in his honor.
Amos ‘n’ Andy
To those born in the modern era, the fact that in the early days of radio, roles of Black characters were usually played by white actors may be shocking. The best-known example of that is Amos ‘n’ Andy, an immensely popular show that aired in various forms, beginning on the radio in the 1930s and continuing later with a television version into the 1960s. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were its original stars. At first, these two white men played all the roles, using falsetto for women, but in later years others were added to the cast.
While the show definitely had funny lines, its characters, who generally spoke with ungrammatical English (like “Ain’t dat sumpin”) did not convey a positive impression. On the other hand, their tales of working class people struggling to make a living during the depths of the Depression, and often running afoul of the unfeeling establishment, is something that people of any color could identify with. Amos was a small businessman (The Fresh Air Taxi Company) trying to compete in a world where the cards were often stacked against his succeeding.
Freeman Gosden (left) and Charles Correll (right.) Photo Credit: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/ pages/3433.html
The program stirred controversy during its years on the air, and there is controversy today. In 1931 the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s second largest black newspaper, launched a nationwide campaign to have Amos ‘n’ Andy cancelled because of its negative stereotypes. The Defender, the nation’s best-known Black newspaper, disagreed with the Courier’ s campaign. A Harlem rooming house owner was quoted in that paper as saying about Gosden and Correll, “They do not belittle the Negro and I think their programs have done more to help the white people understand us than all the books ever written.” The NAACP had long objected to the program. By the 1960s, as the civil right movement grew, more and more saw the negative stereotypes as offensive and it’s popularity waned.
Left: Marlin Hurt. Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marlin_Hurt. Center: Eddie Anderson. Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Right: Jack Cooper. Photo Credit: https://wgrt.com/black-history-in-radio-jack-l-cooper/
This is an example of another show that would be questioned today, given modern sensibilities. Black characters in early radio often involved servant roles. In 1944 the Fibber McGee and Molly show introduced Beulah, the McGee’s maid. The part was played by Marlin Hurt, a white man who spoke in a falsetto voice. Beulah’s character became so popular that The Beulah Show became a spin-off.
One of the most beloved characters in radio comedy was Rochester Van Jones, Jack Benny’s valet, played by Eddie Anderson. Rochester may have been a servant, but the character he played was a sassy clever fellow unafraid of telling his boss off, and whose lines often got bigger laughs than Benny’s In 1947 Benny got a letter from a lawyer in Ohio, criticizing the low pay that Rochester frequently alluded to in scripts, and threat- ening to sue Benny on Rochester’s behalf. Actually, Eddie Anderson was very well paid. In the 1940s his compensation worked out to $700 per minute of air time. Anderson became a wealthy man, with a yacht, extensive real estate holdings, and three servants of his own.
Jack Benny respected his fellow cast member. Jack’s cast sometimes traveled from Hollywood to New York City to do shows. During one stay in New York the hotel manager talked to Jack’s staff, saying that some hotel patrons from the South were complaining about a Black man staying there, and could they please do something about it. The quick response was “Eddie will move out tomorrow.” The manager expressed gratitude but was shocked the next day when Jack’s entire party checked out! Jack’s party also got up and left a swanky restaurant that refused to serve Eddie Anderson.
Jack appreciated Anderson’s talent and was willing to share the spotlight. Jack and Eddie Anderson both appeared in a 1940 film, Buck Benny Rides Again. Its world premiere was at Lowe’s Victoria Theater in Harlem. In introducing Rochester to the full house, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson said that he knew of only three [white] people to whom color meant nothing: Irving Berlin, Shirley Temple’s mother (who gave Robinson his chance in the movies), and Jack Benny. Eddie Anderson was overcome by emotion at the audience’s warm welcome. After saying his piece, he introduced Jack, thanking him for allowing Rochester to have so many good lines. Jack confessed, “If Eddie Anderson hadn’t been a fine comedian, there’s nothing I could have done for him.”
It is difficult to answer questions such as “Who was the first Black announcer or the first Black DJ on the radio?” because history books until recently have not dealt with such issues. However, Jack L. Cooper deserves mention. In the 1920s he was the Washington news bureau repre- sentative for the Chicago Defender, when he took a job with Washington D.C.’s AT&T-owned station, WCAP. He wrote and performed a Black-dialect comedy show that probably relied on minstrel show humor. But this radio experience came in handy when he moved back to Chicago, and in 1929 produced “The All-Negro Hour,” or “The All-Colored Hour,” which showcased Black talent, and became immensely popular with Chicago’s Black community, and drew a fair number of white listeners as well. It is said to be the first radio series written, produced, and performed by an African-American. He later formed a radio advertising company and in the 1930s became a disc jockey on station WSBC playing “race records.” In 1947 Ebony Magazine named him “Dean of African-American disc jockeys.” He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2012.
Duke Ellington and Other Band Leaders
Early broadcasters struggled with deciding what kind of music would be appropriate to broadcast on the radio. Vacuum tube inventor Lee de Forest felt that radio music should be limited to operas and symphonies. But the birth of entertainment radio coincided with the birth of jazz, and many prominent people argued that jazz (then seen as “Negro music” or “race music”) should be banned. In that era The Ladies Home Journal told its readers that jazz “originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest of deeds.” The racial overtones are far from subtle.
Performances of Black bands and Black singers on network radio in the 1920s were uncommon, although in cities such as Chicago and New York one might hear jazz recordings on local stations from a performer such as Bessie Smith, who sold 6 million records. (She was also heard on Memphis station WMC and Atlanta station WSB.) The Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington bands were heard on New York City station WHN as early as 1924. Between 1926 and 1928 Louis Armstrong was regularly heard on WHN. Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway were heard on the CBS network in the late 1920s. But before WWII there were stations around the country, particularly in the South, that promised never to play “race music.”
Listeners increasingly told radio stations and networks that they wanted to hear more of the music they enjoyed, and often that meant jazz. Towards the end of the “roaring ‘20s” many white Americans were embracing jazz wholeheartedly, buying records and searching for it on the radio. One listener who heard jazz for the first time on the radio said, “It was the most joyful music I had ever heard.” Embracing jazz may also have been a way for young white people of the 1920s to rebel against their more conservative, staid parents. Today young white people who listen to rap and hip-hop music may share that attitude. Author Susan Douglas said “Through radio whites could partake of the spirit of Black culture without being forced to witness or experience its depri- vations and injustices.”
White musicians such as Paul Whiteman offered a somewhat watered-down version of hot jazz, and some- how a white band leader playing jazz seemed more acceptable to the networks than a Black bandleader. To gain respectability, black jazz band conductors and band members often dressed in tuxedoes. While you could not see them when listening on the radio, publicity pictures gave the message that these were serious musicians.
Duke Ellington. Photo Credit: https:// www.gordonparksfoundation.org/gordon-parks/ photography-archive/duke-ellington-1960.
By the time television began to appear in American homes, circa 1950, Black musicians like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole had become nationally famous and had loyal fans of all colors.
In the 1950s and early ‘60s, top-40s disc jockeys could be heard in almost every city. Much of the popular music of the early rock ‘n roll era was written by and/or performed by Black musicians. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and some of the white disc jockeys who played this music (e.g., Wolfman Jack) actually tried to “sound Black.” That was a turn-off for some people.
In the 1950s the number of small independent radio stations grew, and that made it possible for more stations to cater to Black audiences. No doubt there were African- American entrepreneurs in the early years of radio who might have liked to start a radio station. Securing funding would have been a challenge. But after WWII that began to change.
Right: Wolfman Jack. Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Left: Nat Williams. Photo Credit: https://www.radiohalloffame.com/nat-d-williams.
Radio Station WDIA and Nat Williams
Station WDIA in Memphis, which was launched in 1948, is said to be the first in the nation to feature an all-Black on -air staff. It featured blues stars like B. B. King. Its audience purchased the products of the station’s advertisers and the station made money. Some credit Nat Williams with creating “Black appeal radio,” which in turn led to the urban contemporary listening format of Black radio in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Dr. Homer Neal. Photo Credit: https:// lsa.umich.edu/physics/people/in-memoriam/ haneal.html.
Dr. Homer Neal
A love of radio can affect careers in many ways. Homer Neal (1942-2018) is a good example of an individual for whom amateur radio was a stepping stone to a distinguished science career. Neal got interested in radio and obtained an amateur radio license at an early age. His interest in radio became so all-consuming that he taught himself more than his local high school could, and was admitted to the University of Indiana as a physics major at age 15. Rather than encourage this bright young man, a faculty member suggested that a Negro scientist was unlikely to succeed. Not only did Neal graduate, he went on to earn a PhD at the University of Michigan and was a distinguished faculty member there.
Dr. Neal worked in the field of particle physics and collaborated with a team at the world’s largest particle accelerator in Switzerland, studying elementary particles such as the Higgs boson. In 2016 he was elected president of the 55,000-member American Physical Society. He served on the board of the Ford Motor Company. Neal was a council member of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a director of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, and a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution. As a member of the National Science Board he played a pivotal role in establishing the widely popular and effective Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. All this resulted from a kid’s fascination with radio at an early age!
Left: Clockwise from top: Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans), Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford ), George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley). Photo Credit: Wikipedia. Center: Cathy Hughes. Photo Credit: https://cathyhughes.com/about/. Right: Oprah Winfrey. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.
The Jeffersons was a spin-off from Norman Lear’s popular 1970s program, All in the Family. Also produced by Lear, it featured George and Louise Jefferson and their son Lionel, a prosperous Black family. George was played by Sherman Hemsley, Louise by Isabel Sanford, and Lionel by Mike Evans (who left after the first season). George and Louise Jefferson had been neighbors of All in the Family’s Archie and Edith Bunker, and had appeared on a number of episodes of that show before getting one of their own. Like his neighbor Archie Bunker, George Jefferson was outspoken about contro- versial topics such as race.
The Jeffersons first aired on CBS in January 1975 and lasted for eleven seasons—one of the longest running sitcoms. One of the first TV shows to feature a successful Black family, it paved the way for programs like The Cosby Show, which debuted in 1984.
The show also featured an interracial couple (Tom and Helen Wills). That was quite daring at the time. Popular with broad audiences, The Jeffersons was the number four show in its first season and won a total of 14 Emmy Awards
An impressive success story is the rise of the Urban One (formerly Radio One) the leading electronic media voice speaking to Black America today. Urban One includes the largest local urban radio network, the largest African- American owned television network, and also disseminates digital urban content.
The story of this company centers around Cathy Hughes, the first African-American woman to head a firm publicly traded on a stock exchange in the United States. In 1979 Ms. Hughes and her husband purchased failing Washington, D.C. radio station WOL. She quickly built the station into one of the most popular in the nation’s capital, and she was called by many “The Voice of the Black Community.” As additional radio stations in other cities were added, the Radio One Network grew and morphed into the successful major corporation that Urban One is today. WOL continues today at 1450 on the AM dial.
An appropriate way to end this article is summarizing the story of Oprah Winfrey.
Born into poverty in rural Mississippi, she was once called “the world’s only Black billionaire.” The Oprah Winfrey Show remained one of the most popular TV shows for a remarkable quarter century. Some called her “the most influential woman in the world.” She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. The list of her prestigious awards is too long to include here. Winfrey had a charisma that endeared her to both white and Black audiences. She developed an interviewing skill that was second to none. She created her own network.
In the early days of radio and television, it was so difficult for a person of color to find any opportunities. Winfrey’s story shows that today fame and success are achievable for anyone with sufficient talent. ■
Brian Belanger is the Museum’s Curator, Librarian, and Editor of its journal Dials and Channels.
* One of the decisions to make in writing an article like this is whether to also capitalize white if you capitalize black when referring to a racial group. Style manuals do not agree. Googling the question on the Internet turns up passionate postings arguing for one approach or the other. So, the decision seems to be for the author to make. I chose the approach promulgated by the Columbia Journalism Review which says: “We capitalize Black, and not white, when referring to groups in racial, ethnic, or cultural terms. For many people, Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists.