Blacks in TV:
Non-Stereotypes Versus Stereotypes
In this ambivalent atmosphere, early television often spotlighted black talent. On local and network levels, African-American entertainers performed frequently as regulars or guest stars on variety series, as hosts or central characters on black-oriented programs, and as performers on one-shot dramatic and musical productions.
African-American personalities appeared on several of the most popular comedy-variety programs of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Martha Davis and Spouse, and Nat King Cole were guests many times on Your Show of Shows, The Garry Moore Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, All Star Revue, and The Jackie Gleason Show. Sports personalities such as Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and the Harlem Globetrotters made special appearances. Typical was the appearance in 1953 of vocalist Sarah Vaughan on the DuMont series Stars on Parade. Here she added glamour and sultry jazz arrangements to this program which featured talent drawn from the U.S. military.
Several black dance orchestras performed on Cavalcade of Bands series in 1950 and 1951 on the DuMont network. Among them were the bands of Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington. And the preeminent jazz pianist of the era, Teddy Wilson—who as a member of the famed Benny Goodman Quartet helped to integrate big band music in the 1930s—was a regular with the Benny Goodman Sextet in its weekly Club Goodman segment of DuMont’s Star Time variety show in the 1950-1951 TV season.
No matter how intermittently black singers, dancers, and musicians were used in early television, the employment of these talents was a definite breakthrough for minority entertainers. Never had network radio—even in the late 1940s and early 1950s—utilized as many African-American stars so consistently. Early TV needed talented and well-known personalities who would be effective in variety-show formats. Black celebrities were a natural resource from which the new industry could draw.
Whenever performers like singer Pearl Bailey, her dancing brother Bill Bailey, or pianist Hazel Scott appeared on television, they did so with dignity, not as minstrel-show stereotypes. When Lena Horne made one of her many appearances, more critical eyebrows were raised because of her provocative clothing than because of her racial background. Consider, for example, the review of her TV performances that was published in the Chicago edition of TV Forecast on June 7, 1952—an issue with Horne's radiant photograph on its cover. This was no tribute to a demeaning racial stereotype.
Television viewers were getting an all-too-frequent glimpse of the best torch singer in the country, Miss Lena Horne.... Lena is a study in seduction by goose pimples. Embracing a suitable song, she strips it of any ordinary treatment and drapes it with a sleek, tiger-like ferociousness. Then she sells it, first of all with a pair of flaring, frenzy-struck eyes that swim with unmistakable insinuation. With the feeling established, she taunts and coddles the lyrics with her large sensuous mouth, close-pinched nostrils and expressive hands. It's all mood. A dimly-lit stage. A strikingly beautiful woman. And a dusky, low-down treatment of a plaintive tune.
Typical, too, of the new fairness emerging in and with early video was the performance by singer Arthur Lee Simpkins on Jackie Gleason's Cavalcade of Stars on October 26, 1951. Simpkins was a new talent from the West Coast whose operatic technique lent itself well to the romantic "Song of Songs" and whose tenor voice and mastery of Irish dialect permitted him to give a creditable rendition of "Back to Donnegal," a song usually reserved for white male singers of Irish descent
One of the more promising productions occurred on The Fred Waring Show in February 1953 when Waring and his troupe offered their adaptation of “God’s Trombones,” a music and dance piece composed by James Weldon Johnson. Two black performers, actress Maidie Norman and singer Frank Davis, were prominently featured in this ten-minute religious presentation which was staged in honor of Negro History Week.
Such utilization of blacks was a conscious effort on the part of a new medium in an atmosphere of postwar liberality. The essence of this development was stated candidly during a skit on the Texaco Star Theater on May 29, 1951. In a musical revue entitled "The United Nations of Show Business," host Milton Berle and his guest, Danny Thomas, enunciated the ethic of the new medium, reiterating the bias-free promise of early television.
Thomas: You know, I've been watching, Milton, the Texaco Star Theater from the very beginning, and I have seen great young stars born right here on this stage. But, the thing that impressed me most about your shows is that it's not just a showcase for talent, it's a showcase for democracy.
Berle: Well, what do you mean, Danny?
Thomas: Let me put it this way, Milton. In the past three years the great performers who have appeared here on the Texaco Star Theater have represented a cross section of the world. I mean Italians, Spaniards, Australians, the white man, the Negro, the oriental, the Protestant, the Catholic, the Jew—they've all shared the spotlight on this stage.
Berle: Well, Danny, if I may inject, that's the way show business operates. Danny, there's no room for prejudice in our profession. We entertainers rate a brother actor by his colorful performance, and not by the color of his skin.
Thomas: While we're on the subject and show business is about to take a bow, let's also inject that we in show business cannot tolerate intolerance.
Berle: Well, throughout the years, Danny, the world of the theater has presented a united front against bigotry.... The entertainers of America are firm in the belief that a happy nation is a strong nation.
Thomas: And to that end, we have tried to the best of our ability to keep America laughing, singing, and dancing.
Berle: You can't frown on anyone while you're laughing. Thomas: Yes, and you can't shout at anyone while you're singing.
Berle: And you can't kick anyone while you're dancing.
Thomas: We entertainers of America are deeply grateful for the opportunity our country has given us— a country that knows no barrier of race or of creed.
Berle: A country whose sons and daughters are free to choose their own profession and to follow it as far as their talents can take them.
Two influential employers of black talent in early TV were Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen. From the inception in 1948 of his Toast of the Town (later called The Ed Sullivan Show), Sullivan liberally seasoned his Sunday evening variety program with African-American celebrities. Despite periodic letters of criticism from prejudiced viewers and anxious advertisers, Sullivan persisted in welcoming entertainers as diverse as singers Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, and The Fisk Jubilee Singers; comedian Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham; rhythm and blues performers Billy Ward and the Dominoes; operatic soprano Marian Anderson; dancers Peg Leg Bates, Bunny Briggs, and the Will Mastin Trio with Sammy Davis, Jr.; and Dr. Ralph Bunche, United Nations Commissioner and recipient in 1950 of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in settling the Arab-Israeli war. Even former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis appeared on Toast of the Town in an unsuccessful venture as a song-and-dance entertainer.
Sullivan felt that by bringing black personalities directly into the homes of Americans, TV would undermine racism. He believed that white adults and children, seeing and appreciating black talent, would be forced to reassess racist stereotyping and their own prejudices. Sullivan was particularly sensitive to the impact such images would have upon children, for it was they, he suggested, "who will finally lay Jim Crow to rest."
Equal to Sullivan in his employment of black talent in early television was Steve Allen. As host for more than two years (1954-1957) of the popular Tonight program, Allen was especially attracted to African-American musicians. Himself, an accomplished jazz composer and performer, Allen hosted such celebrities as Duke Ellington, The Ink Spots, Carmen McRae. Lionel Hampton, and Sammy Davis, Jr. One program was telecast from the famous New York City home of modern jazz, the Birdland nightclub. Another show was dedicated to exploration of black music in general.
But Allen was sympathetic to more than African-American music. He occasionally focused a full program on problems of pressing social interest to blacks. One show, for example, dealt with the issue of civil rights. Another telecast treated brotherhood. Steve Allen was a socially-conscious intellectual as well as an entertainer who occasionally used his program to promote discussion on a range of contemporary issues. By integrating racial questions into the Tonight show, Allen gave his program a seriousness that was generally absent from shows seeking purely to entertain.
It must be remembered, however, that not all viewers were comfortable with non-stereotyped black performances on the new medium. Flattering appearances by minority entertainers often provoked hateful reactions. And all concerned in such bookings—the white host as well as the sponsor, station, network, and African-American talent—risked vile insult, even physical abuse, from racist whites. Nowhere was this pattern more obvious than in the case of the Will Mastin Trio and its performance with Eddie Cantor on the Colgate Comedy Hour.
Following rave reviews for the act at the prestigious Ciro's nightclub in Hollywood, Cantor brought the Trio—consisting of twenty-four-year old Sammy Davis, Jr. supported by his father and uncle—to his NBC comedy-variety showcase on February 17, 1952. That Cantor was impressed was obvious in the way he introduced these entertainers to the TV audience. "The other night I saw the Will Mastin Trio and one of the greatest hunks of talent I've ever seen in my life, Sammy Davis, Jr. In my twenty years of going around this cafe [Ciro's], this is the greatest act I have ever seen."
The Trio then offered an energetic twelve-minute distillation of the Ciro's floor show. Davis tap danced, joked, sang, and delivered impersonations of celebrities such as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Billy Eckstine. So worked up was Davis that Cantor at one point walked on camera with a handkerchief to dry the young entertainer's perspiring face. And near the end of the act Cantor returned to the stage and brought the performers to the microphone. With his arm resting on Davis's shoulder and flanked by the rest of the Trio, Cantor asked the enthusiastic audience about Davis, "Am I right? Is this the greatest hunk of talent you've seen in years?" Then he made a surprise announcement. "Sammy, I've got news for you. I'll probably get killed for this, but you're coming back here on my next show four weeks from tonight."
It was a tour de force performance that helped to establish Sammy Davis, Jr. as a national celebrity. But it had its sinister aspect. As Davis recalled in his autobiography, Yes I Can, much of the mail he received in response to the appearance was terrifying. "Dear lousy nigger, keep your filthy paws off Eddie Cantor" read one letter, "he may be a jew but at least he is white and dont [sic] come from africa where you should go back to I hope I hope I hope. I wont use that lousy stinking toothpaste no more for fear maybe the like of you has touched it. What is dirt like you doing on our good American earth anyway?"
Similarly, "an avalanche" of hate mail was received by Cantor, the station, and the sponsor. One letter wondered, "Where do you get off wiping that little coon's face with the same handkerchief you'd put on a good, clean, white, American face?" According to Davis, Colgate warned Cantor that he would be taken off the air "if anything like this happens again." Cantor responded by signing the Trio for three more appearances that TV season. Davis later pondered the irony of the situation. "How could you figure it? Here there were people going out of their way to kick me in the face with nothing to gain by doing it, then along comes a man like Eddie Cantor with everything to lose, but he deals himself into my fight and says, 'They'll have to kick me, too."
While variety shows were important to early television, sports programming also was crucial to the emerging medium. The prospect of viewing baseball, boxing, and football was an important lure to new customers. Importantly, television also gained popularity as two lesser sports—professional wrestling and roller derby—attracted large audiences in those first years.
Black participation in TV sports fit into an interesting pattern. African Americans were practically absent from wrestling and roller derby. In baseball, racial integration had only been accomplished with Jackie Robinson's play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Thus, black baseball players were still relatively few in the early 1950s. Since professional basketball and football usually drew their personnel from graduating college classes, the paucity of black players reflected the small number of African Americans graduating from colleges and universities with well-developed athletic programs.
The sport that most fully highlighted black athletes was boxing. Traditionally, boxing had been a vehicle for upward social mobility and financial success for working-class Americans. Immigrant groups such as the Irish, Italians, Jews, and East Europeans had enjoyed ascendancy in boxing in the first half of the twentieth century. By mid-century, however, the sport was being flooded with young black and Latino athletes.
Boxing was a staple on prime-time network and local television throughout this period. And in all weight classifications—from featherweights like Sandy Saddler to heavyweights such as Ezzard Charles—televised boxing continually featured African-American performers. Champions like Sugar Ray Robinson, Randy Turpin, Jimmy Carter, Archie Moore, Johnny Bratton, and Kid Gavilan were familiar participants on weeknight bouts.
In the first years of TV popularity boxing matches gained high ratings. The heavyweight championship bout between Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott was one of the highest-rated telecasts in 1948. During the 1950-1951 TV season, the Cavalcade of Sports, a Friday night boxing program sponsored by the Gillette Safety Razor Company, was the sixth most popular show, with an average rating higher than that of Arthur Godfrey and His Talent Scouts, Toast of the Town, and Kraft Television Theater.
Blacks appeared on a wide range of early non-stereotyped programming. In 1948 Television Chapel, the first regularly scheduled religious program, occasionally featured a black congregation during its Sunday worship. The same year, the DuMont network televised Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, a well-known clergyman from Washington, D.C. and the Southernaires, a gospel choir, appeared on ABC.
In the early 1950s, the Mariners, an integrated male quartet, were regulars on the popular CBS show, Arthur Godfrey and Friends. Phil Taylor and Bill Grant were song-and-dance performers on Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club in 1951. Early rhythm and blues music appeared on national television when the Larks performed on the Perry Como Show on February 14, 1951. Blacks were among the nonprofessionals cast on The Black Robe, an NBC series that in 1949 reenacted the drama of night court. A black couple was among those married on KLAC-TV's (Los Angeles) Wedding Bells in 1950. In 1949 and 1950, Amanda Randolph hosted Amanda, a home-oriented show telecast five mornings a week for over a year on the DuMont network. And in 1954, explorer Matthew Henson discussed his Arctic adventures on NBC's Today show.
African Americans regularly appeared on audience participation and quiz programs in the 1950s. Black women often competed for prizes on Queen for a Day, a popular daytime program shown on local TV in Los Angeles and later on the ABC network. Amateur programs also spotlighted black talent. Among the most significant winners on early network amateur shows were Diahann Carroll on Chance of a Lifetime, Johnny Nash on Arthur Godfrey and His Talent Scouts, and Gladys Knight on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, and eight-year old Leslie Uggams on Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club in 1952.
During the quiz-show craze of the mid-1950s, blacks occasionally were contestants. Among the more renowned competitors, Ethel Waters won $10,000 on Break the $250,000 Bank, dancer Geoffrey Holder won $16,000 on The $64,000 Question, ex-boxer Beau Jack earned $1,900 on Strike It Rich, and Joe Louis and his wife gained $41,000 on High Finance.
Winning large amounts of money made celebrities out of black contestants. Steve and Dorothy Rowland became nationally famous when they earned $75,000 on Do You Trust Your Wife? Such fame came also to Frances DeBerry, a seventy-four-year-old widow whose expertise on Shakespeare won her $16,000 on The $64,000 Question; and to Gloria Lockerman, a teenager who won $16,000 on the same series and also $32,000 on its sister show, The $64,000 Challenge. On another quiz show, Name That Tune, now fifteen-year old Leslie Uggams won the top prize of $25,000 while gaining renewed national recognition as a promising young vocal talent.
By the end of the quiz fad, Ebony compiled the totals. According to the magazine, more than twenty-five black contestants had been substantial winners on network quiz programs. Their earnings totaled more than $500,000. In the process, these winners appeared before 120 million viewers.
While television utilized blacks in a wide variety of program formats, the medium could be harsh on obvious reminders of a less tolerant past. White men wearing burnt cork, the classic make-up of the minstrel show, failed in early television. Although a star like Eddie Cantor occasionally might appear in blackface for one or two songs on the Colgate Comedy Hour, network TV found it unprofitable to build an entire show around the minstrel format. American Minstrels of 1949 was a stillborn ABC project. It intended to revive the popularity of Pick Malone and Pat Padgett—blackface comedians for over a decade in film and network radio—and feature their mocking comedy routines. The program, however, was poorly received and left the air quickly.
A few months earlier, CBS had been unsuccessful with its own minstrel show, Captain Billy's Mississippi Music Hall. Perhaps these costly disasters persuaded NBC to abandon plans for a minstrel show which, it was rumored in 1949, was to star the greatest blackface entertainer of the century, Al Jolson.
Even local productions that adhered too closely to the minstrel format were short-lived. Olympus Minstrels on WLTW (Cincinnati) in 1948 was such a program. So, too, was Sleepy Joe, a daily children's feature on KTSL (Los Angeles) which in 1948-1949 starred white dialectician Jimmy Scribner as a black-face Uncle Remus type who rocked lazily on the front porch of his slave cabin while relating tales of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear to "de chilluns." Scribner, who had mastered two dozen minstrel-show voices, had been on radio for twenty years as the sole star of a "black" serial, The Johnson Family. Now on local TV, he used his stereotyped voices as those of the Br'er folks when he told his stories. The condescension inherent in such stereotyping was unconsciously delineated by a Los Angeles television magazine when it described the format of Sleepy Joe.
The show always begins with some action, ending the same way. "Sleepy" in character is an old-time story teller, who owns his own little plot with a log cabin cozily situated in the green lands of the deep South. "Little Missy" and "Sonny Jim" are the children who visit daily from the "big white house" on the hill. With them he plays numerous child games until he tires and retreats to that wicker rocking chair on his front porch. The children squat eagerly before him and wait excitedly for a story.
Nonetheless, blackface was not totally absent from early television. In 1947 a small producer, Admiral Films, created a series of TV shorts centering on the career of 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster. Each of these shorts told the story of how Foster came to write a particular song. Since many of his most familiar tunes—“Camptown Races,” “Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground,” “Old Black Joe”−came from slave melodies or from his interaction with slaves, the films employed many African Americans. But when the white Ken Darby Singers actually performed the finished products, they often did so in blackface. These films were syndicated to local stations well into the 1950s.
The ambivalent nature of early TV, as seen in the range of roles in which it portrayed blacks, was further demonstrated by the fact that several black entertainers hosted their own non-sponsored, quarter-hour network series. In the summer of 1950 jazz pianist Hazel Scott hosted a fifteen-minute show three times a week on the DuMont network. Between 1948 and 1950 singer-pianist Bob Howard was a regular part of the early evening programming on CBS. He was also a regular in 1950-51 on the musical quiz show, Sing It Again. When Howard left CBS, he continued to appear locally on WOR-TV in New York City.
Of major significance for blacks in television was the Billy Daniels Show. This was a quarter-hour musical series aired Sunday evenings on ABC throughout the fall of 1952. Although it lasted only thirteen weeks, the program was a milestone. First, it was a network project carried in the largest cities in the nation: Boston, New York City, Detroit, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It was also the first black show to be broadcast nationally by a single sponsor, the Vitamin Corporation of America for its Rybutol B-complex vitamins. The enthusiasm of Daniels and his entourage— including the Benny Paine Trio and the white announcer Jimmy Blaine—was evident in the premiere telecast. After belting out familiar show tunes like "It Was Just One of Those Things" and "Sunny Side of the Street," Daniels (called by Blaine "the peppiest man in show business") helped to deliver a commercial for Rybutol and signed off optimistically, "Want to thank you for listening and say that we'll be back again with some new songs, and we do hope you join us."
Importantly, the series was perceived as a watershed for other black entertainers with aspirations for success in television. It was this latter point, no doubt, which prompted a writer for the Chicago Defender to announce the cancellation of the show with a sarcastic comment about having overstocked his medicine cabinet with Rybutol, in the hope that buying the product would help keep the program viable. ABC and Rybutol auditioned The Mills Brothers as a possible replacement hosts, but that venture never came to fruition. Although discontinued after one-third of a season, the Billy Daniels Show established the precedent for a national, sponsored network series centering around a black entertainer.
Yet, several years before Billy Daniels' unsuccessful network series, the most ambitious network project highlighting black talent occurred on CBS. Sugar Hill Times was conceived as an all-black, hour-long variety program. It made its debut in September 1949. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for Tuesday evenings opposite Milton Berle's incredibly popular Texaco Star Theater on NBC. Competing with the top show in television, and inhibited further by a discouragingly low budget, Sugar Hill Times had little chance of surviving.
The program was hosted by a New York musical and radio personality, Willie Bryant. Music came from Don Redman and his orchestra. During its short run, its guests and regulars included actor Avon Long, jazz trumpeter Hot Lips Page, and singers Thelma Carpenter, Maxine Sullivan, The Charioteers, The Chocolateers, The Orioles, and newcomer Harry Belafonte. These were all competent acts, but none was considered top-rank at the time.
To assure their ascendency, moreover, Berle and NBC countered Sugar Hill Times with black guest stars of broader appeal. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson danced in what proved to be his last TV appearance before his death several weeks later. Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers appeared while his team was tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the last week of competition for the National League baseball championship. Berle also hosted the most celebrated black band leader of the era, Duke Ellington.
To rescue Sugar Hill Times after only two poorly viewed telecasts, CBS altered its structure and scheduling. Now a half-hour show on alternate Thursdays, it was placed opposite the ABC quiz show, Stop the Music! On radio earlier that year, Stop the Music! had devastated its network competitors. After seventeen successful years on NBC, the eminent comedian Fred Allen abandoned his radio career, disgusted with the giveaway show that had wooed away most of his listeners. On CBS, Edgar Bergen took Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd into a year of retirement, unable to match the ratings of the quiz program. As might be expected, Sugar Hill Times fared no better. It was aired only twice at its new time before being canceled.
In reviewing the history of this attempt at all-black programming, Variety criticized the low budget and merciless scheduling of the show. The trade journal also raised an important thought which producers would have to consider in the future: Were there enough nationally prominent entertainers to make an all-black variety program competitive? Given the history of the film and radio industries in retarding black talent, and given their tradition of producing all-black entertainment primarily for black audiences, was the pool of recognized African-American celebrities large enough to offer a competitive weekly variety program to a racially-mixed national audience?
If big-name guests were strategic to the popularity of Toast of the Town, The Texaco Star Theater, and the like, was it not unrealistic of CBS to launch a black variety program in 1949 with talented, but relatively unknown, personalities? Perhaps Sugar Hill Times failed as much from the legacy of stultifying, segregated American entertainment as it did from feeble budgets and suicidal scheduling. Significantly, the all-black format never reemerged in network variety programming.
Much more prevalent were black programs produced on non-network television. These were usually musical-variety features spotlighting local personalities and an occasional celebrity guest. A typical offering was Club Ebony on WAVE-TV (Louisville) in January 1949. This was the first black revue on Southern television. It starred the local Odell Baker Quintet, a sultry singer named Edmonia, and a Louisville rhythm ensemble, the Gutter Pipers. On its premier broadcast, Lionel Hampton and several members of his orchestra were guest performers.
Similar shows appeared on local TV throughout the nation. In Chicago, Happy Pappy with the Four Vagabonds on WENRTV in 1949, and Jesse Owens' Dixie Showtime on WGN-TV in 1951 were indicative of such programming. So, too, was The Al Benson Show, a local teenage dance program in Chicago, on which popular singers like Joe Williams guest-starred in 1951. Sepia was a musical revue in mid-1949 on WFMB-TV in Indianapolis. The Hadda Brooks Show on KLAC-TV and KGO-TV (Oakland) featured West Coast talent. Bob McEwen's Capitol Caravan followed a nightclub format for more than four years in Washington, D.C., and the Mary Holt Show was a popular feature on KYW-TV in Cleveland in the mid-1950s.
In New York City, there were several significant local black shows. The Hazel Scott Show on WARD presented the nation's foremost female jazz pianist five nights per week in 1950. Spotlight on Harlem on WJZ-TV, and Stairway to the Stars on WATV (Newark), were black amateur shows in the early 1950s. And Club Caravan on WATV in 1954 featured the aspiring young singer, Roy Hamilton.
Few black shows were produced or directed by African-Americans. Where such programs did exist, they were local in their orientation and predictable in content. These shows seldom failed to highlight music. Whether it was a religious series like The Mahalia Jackson Show on WBBM-TV (Chicago) in 1955 or The Gospel Show on WATV in 1957, a jazz showcase such as Rhythm Review on KCOP-TV (Los Angeles), or a cooking feature like The Kenny and Flo Show—featuring tenor Herb Kenny of The Ink Spots—on WMAL (Washington, D.C.), music was invariably the central ingredient. Significantly, these presentations represented a miniscule portion of American TV programming. Ebony touched on this fact when it reported that as late as 1957 there were less than a dozen programs in the United States being produced by blacks.
African Americans were present at the birth of television. They were regularly before TV cameras in local and network programming. Granted, they were usually seen in the context of musical entertainment. Granted, too, that blacks almost always appeared as guests rather than regulars or hosts—and when they did host their own series, blacks did not enjoy success. But these were the early days of video. Few expected overnight changes in entertainment patterns. And the fact that there were so many African-American personalities to be found in the young medium kept viable the promise of bias-free programming. There were, however, ominous signs in early TV. The most threatening was the great popularity of black entertainers when they appeared in controversial stereotyped roles.
If the history of blacks in early television suggests that shows stressing authentic images failed to establish lasting success, the same cannot be said of those series and programs presenting African Americans in caricatures drawn from a tradition of prejudice. The mass audience, and consequently sponsors and stations, looked more approvingly on the mammies, coons, and Uncle Toms of the past than they did on blacks seeking approval through non-stereotyped talents.
The mammy figure—usually portrayed as a portly black maid in a white household—was a familiar stereotype. She emitted a certain human warmth that was sometimes difficult to discern beneath her aggressive self-confidence and implacable personality. In early television the black maid was a highly popular character. Between 1953 and 1964, Lillian Randolph played Louise, a maid for the Williams family on Make Room for Daddy (later called The Danny Thomas Show). She also appeared in the mid-1950s as Birdie Lee Goggins, the maid on the syndicated The Great Gildersleeve series—a role which she had enacted on the radio version of that program for more than a decade before it came to video.
While Louise and Birdie were supporting characters, Beulah spotlighted the trials and tribulations of the black maid for the white Henderson household. As portrayed by Ethel Waters, followed by Hattie McDaniel for a short while, and then Louise Beavers, Beulah appeared for three seasons between 1950 and 1953. Beulah was surrounded by familiar types. Her dim-witted friend was Oriole, the black maid of the white family next door. When played by Butterfly McQueen, Oriole was a flighty woman of minimal intelligence. When Ruby Dandridge assumed the role, she added a heavy dose of her recognizable high-pitched giggles to Oriole's personality. Beulah also had a boyfriend, Bill Jackson. As played by Percy Harris, Dooley Wilson, and Ernest Whitman, he may have been the owner of a fix-it shop, but Jackson was oafish, perpetually hungry, and definitely unromantic.
As for the central character herself, Beulah was a heavy, conscientious, and lovable stereotype of the black domestic. She might berate her black friends, but around her boss, "Mr. Harry," and his wife, "Miss Alice," Beulah was always respectful. The problems around which each episode of Beulah revolved were common to the genre—invariably an honest misunderstanding which caused the protagonist to do one thing when quite another was called for. But Beulah suffered and endured. And she usually did so without open complaint—except at the beginning of the show when she was wont to exclaim something like, "If marriages are made in heaven, my guardian angel is sho been loafin' on the job. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. . . ."
Black men were also successful in stereotyped characterizations. Eddie Anderson had little difficulty moving his Rochester character from radio to TV on The Jack Benny Program. As Benny's valet, confidant, and "conscience," Rochester had been a strategic part of the broadcasting success of the program since 1937. He contributed substantially to its television popularity once Benny moved his show to video in the 1950s.
Although Jack Benny and his writers had toned down considerably the minstrel-show quality originally possessed by Rochester on the radio, Anderson's character was still a stereotype. Usually the only black in the telecast, Rochester was a chauffeur and general handyman for his white boss. Anderson's naturally harsh voice gave him a vocal quality akin to the throaty "coon" dialect developed by minstrel-show endmen who cracked race jokes between themselves and the white middleman, the interlocutor. Although he was not as stark a caricature of black manhood as Sleepy Joe and Bill Jackson, Rochester did little to advance the cause of the realistic portrayal of African Americans in popular culture.
If Eddie Anderson failed to enhance the image of blacks in television, Willie Best was absolutely detrimental to that image. Ironically, Best was also the most prolifically employed black actor in early TV. Best entered movies in the 1930s where, as a younger version of Stepin Fetchit, he was nicknamed "Sleep 'n' Eat." He could pop his eyeballs when nervous, speak classic pidgin English, and shake his lanky body at the thought of entering a graveyard.
On television, Best appeared in several series developed by Roland Reed Productions. On Trouble with Father (1950-1955), he played Stu Erwin's brainless handyman, Willie. On My Little Margie (1952-1955), he was Charlie, an elevator operator. He also appeared as a less characterized shipboard handyman on Preston Foster's tugboat series, Waterfront (1954-1956).
Throughout the first years of television, Willie Best's bumbling minstrel character, although well acted, presented a demeaning image of African Americans that was directly contrary to the spirit and accomplishment of postwar blacks. The fact that Best's characters never possessed surnames, and were always called by diminutive first names, strongly tied these characters to an earlier age when slaves were called by first names only. Tellingly, in series that stressed interaction between loving members of white family, Willie never had a family. Like a rootless dark cipher he moved in and out of white domestic life, always following Caucasian direction, but never enhanced by relationships with his own wife, children, friends, or other relatives.
There were many types of programming insensitive to the search for honest and realistic portrayals of blacks. Well into the 1950s, local stations continued to show vintage motion pictures containing prejudiced characterizations. Typical of such old films was The Two Black Crows in Africa, a stereotyped comedy short from the 1930s featuring blackface vaudevillians Charles Mack and George Moran. More popular were the Charlie Chan feature films, a series of theatrical motion pictures featuring various white actors portraying Earl Derr Biggers' famous oriental detective—and often featuring Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland in stereotyped "coon" comedy roles. The Our Gang comedy shorts, syndicated on television as the Little Rascals, introduced a new generation of children to those famous pickaninnies of the 1920s and 1930s, Farina, Buckwheat, and Stymie. And from the 1940s the Monogram studios movies featuring The Eastside Kids continued to spotlight Sunshine Sammy Morrison in the role of Scruno, the lone black member of the comedic youth gang who uttered memorable phrases such as "Who dat say 'Who dat?' when I say 'Who dat?' "
Racist characterizations were found occasionally in the B Westerns that were plentiful in early video. This was especially true of Westerns set in the South following the Civil War. Such films generally took a position hostile to displays of black freedom, and to white interlopers seeking to assist the former slaves. Such a motion picture was Texas Terror, which in 1935 starred John Wayne as a defender of local racial inequality against a group of Yankees and so-called renegades trying to protect the newly won freedom of ex-slaves. When Wayne won, it meant a victory for racist traditions and the continued subservience of blacks.
Particularly demeaning to black Americans were the many exotic jungle documentaries prevalent in early television. In these motion pictures, usually filmed among primitive African tribesmen in the 1930s, the image of "uncivilized" blacks dancing themselves into frenzies or acting out "savage" social rituals suggested that African Americans had family roots deep in barbarism.
The African documentaries of filmmakers like Martin and Osa Johnson, focusing on women with ornamented lips and elongated earlobes or men with tribal scars on their faces and bodies, were pernicious to black Americans. These films pictured the ancestral home of African Americans as a strange place filled with crocodiles, warthogs, lions, and baboons. In one scene, Martin Johnson went so far as to credit the wild beasts with more intelligence than the human natives: "I had always contended that the baboon was the most intelligent of the monkey family," he remarked, "and a lot smarter than some of the savages I had met."
Moreover, while no television station or network at that time would have considered airing the nudity of a white woman, these films of preindustrial Africa seldom failed to show pictures of bare-breasted black women of all ages. The racist implications of such a double standard were obvious.
If films of African tribal life were deleterious to the search for equitable treatment for blacks in the United States, those fictional jungle-adventure series produced for TV exacerbated the situation. Although they avoided the anthropological starkness of the documentaries, these programs served to juxtapose the inferiority of black natives with the technological advancement of white civilization. Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954) starred Jon Hall as a research scientist named "Ramar—White Witch Doctor," whose manly heroism contrasted with the child-like blacks who dutifully called him "Bwana." Jungle Jim in 1955 presented a middle-aged Johnny Weissmuller, long past his prime as a movie Tarzan, in the role of a guide more at home in the Kenyan jungle than the natives he encountered.
The most exaggerated of these exotic adventure series was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Drawn from a comic book character, Sheena was a statuesque blonde who, during the 1955-1956 TV season, swung on jungle vines and raced across the Dark Continent wearing only skimpy leopard-skin clothing. Again, however, the native Africans were portrayed as weaker and less intelligent than this "great white mother."
It has been difficult for Americans to abandon their taste for jungle programming. African imagery has remained a popular part of local and network television. As late as 1961, station KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh offered viewers "Bwana Don" as host of Safari, a Saturday morning showcase which revived old jungle films like Tarzan and the Mermaids and Frank Buck's Bring 'em Back Alive. Between 1966 and 1969, NBC broadcast a new Tarzan series starring Ron Ely. And into the 1990s vintage jungle programs remain available to local outlets, while Tarzan feature films continue to appear on broadcast and cable stations.
Such programming could have aroused black indignation. The assumptions that there were no black heroes in Africa and that native Africans always were less successful than white men or women was eminently debatable. The fact that documentary films fed racist imaginations more than they educated mass audiences was an issue that could have produced legitimate criticism of television programming. But hostility to TV's treatment of African Americans was directed almost entirely at one stereotyped series, The Amos 'n' Andy Show. The controversy that this program created reveals the disdain felt by many Americans toward TV and the direction it was taking in its first decade as a mass medium.
Amos 'n' Andy had been a favorite comedy with Americans since its emergence on radio in the late 1920s. In radio the principal roles had been played by two white dialect actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. In bringing the program to television, however, Gosden and Correll rejected the idea of doing it in blackface. Instead they undertook a national search for black actors who could embody their popular comedic creations.
The casting of Amos 'n' Andy became a nationally publicized event. President Harry S. Truman suggested that Texas State University, a black college with a reputable drama department, might have actors to suit Gosden and Correll. General Dwight D. Eisenhower recommended a black soldier whom he had known during the war. Black vaudevillian Flournoy Miller was hired to assist in the quest. The intensity with which the casting was undertaken was evidenced in May 1950, when Gosden and Correll bought a full page in Variety to advertise the event.
The roles they sought to cast were classic minstrel figures. Amos Jones (eventually played by Alvin Childress) was a low-key, compliant Uncle Tom. He and his wife, Ruby, were an unhumorous twosome who tried to bring reason and level-headedness to bear upon their rascally Harlem friends. Andy, whose full name was Andrew Hogg Brown (played by Spenser Williams, Jr.), was an easy-going dimwit, who always had an eye for a pretty girl and never ceased to be duped by his supposed friends. In George "Kingfish" Stevens (portrayed by Tim Moore), the show presented the stereotyped scheming "coon" character, whose chicanery left his pals distrustful and the audience laughing. Added to the three mainstays were Kingfish's shrewish wife, Sapphire Stevens (Ernestine Wade) and domineering mother-in-law, Mama (Amanda Randolph); a feeble-minded janitor, Lightnin' (Horace "Nicodemus" Stewart); and a thoroughly disreputable lawyer, Algonquin J. Calhoun (Johnny Lee).
Even as the series premiered in June 1951, the NAACP was in federal court seeking an injunction to prevent CBS from televising it. In the minds of groups and individuals sensitive to the struggle for black civil rights, Amos 'n' Andy was an affront to social achievement. The Michigan Federation of Teachers condemned the TV series, calling it "a gross and vulgar caricature of the fifteen million Negro citizens of our country." This sentiment was echoed by the Students for Democratic Action, the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers Union, and by the secretary-treasurer of the Transport Workers Union.
The show business editor of the black newspaper California Eagle blasted Amos 'n' Andy. Referring to "the slow and steady poison of twenty years of Amos 'n' Andy on the radio," he attacked the distorted message received by "middle class and sheltered whites." This message, that "the 'happy and smiling' Negro is the 'good' Negro—the stolid, unemotional Negro is the 'bad' kind," was unfair and unwanted. "To my way of thinking," he concluded, "the Amos 'n' Andy show is not controversial. It just doesn't belong on TV or anywhere else."'
Even more caustic was the reaction in 1951 of actor James Edwards. An outspoken proponent of dignified roles for African-American actors, Edwards assailed the irresponsibility of the series. He contended that, for the sake of 142 jobs which Negroes hold down with the Amos 'n' Andy show, 15 million more Negroes are being pushed back 25 years by perpetuating this stereotype on television. The money involved (and there's a great deal) can't hope to undo the harm the continuation of Amos ‘n’ Andy will effect. We don't have to take it, not today.
At its convention in Atlanta in June-July 1951, the NAACP passed a resolution critical of the new TV series and other programs that stressed negative stereotypes. According to that resolution, "The new television show, Amos 'n' Andy, depicts Negroes in a stereotyped and derogatory manner, and the practice of manufacturers, distributors, retailers, persons, or firms sponsoring or promoting this show, the Beulah show, or others of this type is condemned."" In its legal suit against CBS, however, the NAACP became more specific in enumerating the dimensions of Amos 'n' Andy it felt objectionable.
It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.
Every character in this one and only show with an all-Negro cast is either a clown or a crook.
Negro doctors are shown as quacks and thieves.
Negro lawyers are shown as slippery cowards, ignorant of their profession and without ethics.
Negro women are shown as cackling, screaming shrews, in big-mouth close-ups using street slang, just short of vulgarity. All Negroes are shown as dodging work of any kind.
Millions of white Americans see this Amos 'n' Andy picture and think the entire race is the same.
Although the series was produced for only two seasons, 1951-1953, Amos 'n' Andy continued in syndication. Not until 1966, after years of litigation, did CBS agree to withdraw the program from circulation. Moreover, the impact of the series lasted beyond its original run. In 1956 one critic still attacked it vociferously as a weekly reminder of "discarded and dated" minstrelsy, an oppressive form of entertainment "invented by white plantation owners to make them feel benevolent toward their picturesquely slaphappy, indolent, craps-shooting, lovable, no-account field hands who wouldn't be able to make a living but for the white man." And in 1964, as it entered its thirteenth run in local Chicago television, Amos 'n' Andy triggered city-wide criticism for "promoting the old foot-shuffling, ignorant and lazy stereotypes."
Amos 'n' Andy was not without its defenders. Many argued that the program was simply comedic caricature, no more offensive to blacks than The Goldbergs was to Jews or Life with Luigi was to Italians. They contended that the writing was humorous, the acting was solid, and the popularity of the show was commercially impressive. The fact that Amos 'n' Andy ended the 1951-1952 TV season as the thirteenth most popular program in the nation seemed to confirm such contentions. The influential black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, supported the series. According to that journal, "it provides for the first time lucrative and continuous employment for many talented troupers who have waited a long time for this kind of an open-door opportunity into the great and rapidly expanding television industry." Echoing this sentiment, the actors in the series attacked black activists in the NAACP for being "ill-informed people of our own race who have irresponsibly threatened a boycott of our sponsor and have unfairly characterized the show, its producers and ourselves."
One of the more constructive defenses of Amos 'n' Andy came from Dr. S. Randolph Edmons, a professor of Humanities at Florida A & M University. Edmons called for productive criticism. "If there are to be campaigns to close shows," he remarked in 1951, "there should be campaigns to open shows. If there are to be negative protests against plays which untruthfully reflect the life and character of the race, there should be creative programs to find the right dramas to fill the creative vacuums. This is only fair."
Decades after the premier of the TV version of The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show controversy still swirled around the program. In their cursory study of the show, Bart Andrews and Ahrgus Julliard concluded in 1986 that it was fraudulent in its representation of African Americans. "Amos and Andy were only black on the outside," they noted. "Their birth, nurturing, and development—all of the inner 'machinations'—were white." According to the two writers, "Amos ‘n’ Andy never really was a 'black' show. There were no black scriptwriters, no black producers, no black directors." Indeed, they asserted, "Blacks rarely had any symbiotic connection with what eventually became lucrative renditions of their own music and life-styles. It was therefore inevitable that black representations were devoid of authenticity."
In contrast, Melvin Patrick Ely was somewhat apologetic in his detailed study of the Amos ‘n’ Andy phenomenon. Writing in 1991, Ely described the series in terms of "race-consciousness," but not racism—of comedic "toying with color" instead of racial distortion or discrimination. He was impressed by the innocence of Gosden and Correll in presenting their black characters, and he pointed out that not all African Americans opposed the series, and not all whites applauded it. Ely also found literary merit in Amos ‘n’ Andy, relating it to the honored traditions of American humor−from oral folk tales of the nineteenth century, to the writings of Mark Twain, to the movie antics of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Still, he was moved to conclude that "However benign Gosden and Correll's intentions may have been ... Amos 'n' Andy's fans could easily see the series not only as a traditional burlesque of universal human greed, but also as a portrait of African-American character and communal values. That picture was no compliment to the race."
On television, too, the debate over Amos 'n' Andy has remained heated. Through his syndicated documentary in 1984, Amos 'n' Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy, producer Michael Avery offered a spirited vindication of the series. Hosted by comedian George Kirby, the hour-long production lined up an impressive group of defenders that included Ernestine Wade, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Charles Correll's son, Richard. But the failure of the documentary to offer a similar array of hostile critics rendered it less an anatomy of a controversial program and more a protracted justification for rerunning the old episodes.
Three years later, beginning January 26, 1987, hostess Doris McMillon took up the debate for a full week of her nightly talk show, On the Line with ... on the cable Black Entertainment Network. Viewers saw and heard conflicting views from people as diverse as Horace Stewart, who lauded the show and role he played in it, to the Reverend Emmett Burns of the NAACP, who argued that the series remained socially divisive and a denigration of all African Americans. Interestingly, when viewers were invited to telephone an 800- number to vote on whether or not Amos 'n' Andy should appear again on television, more than 80 percent voted in the affirmative.
There is little doubt that Amos 'n' Andy contrasted with the more realistic image of blacks offered on television. Written, produced, and directed by white men, the series was a stereotyped projection of black life. Certainly characters were exaggerated for purposes of comedy, but their essence was drawn directly from offensive minstrel shows, an entertainment form that was anachronistic in the 1950s. Defenders were correct in noting that the series meant success for many black actors. Some felt that as the first long-running network program utilizing dozens of blacks, it might be the beginning of prosperity for blacks in TV. But critics were also right in maintaining that Amos 'n' Andy, despite its popularity, was no breakthrough for African Americans.
Nonetheless, Amos 'n' Andy occasionally demonstrated humanizing qualities. The Stevens' apartment was the first look at a black residence in television history. It was typical of situation comedy sets—modestly furnished, clean, apparently homey, but situated in Harlem. Except for the recurring characters, supporting black roles were usually socially substantial. A black businessman, lawyer, music instructor, judge, and the like were not played for laughs. Their seriousness offset the caricature of the cast regulars.
Although Sapphire and Mama were less than picturesque images of black femininity, the program frequently featured beautiful black women in lesser roles. They were generally the objects of Andy's harmless flirtations, or they were cast as secretaries.
Nor were there any overt signs of racial segregation. When the Kingfish and his family stopped at a roadside diner in Connecticut, they encountered no problem in being served. When white men and women entered the story line, they never acted smugly or discriminated against a black character, no matter how outlandish viewers found him. In one episode, a radio station had no qualms about substituting the Stevenses for a quarrelling white couple whose "Happy Home" program was about to be aired in New York City. In this instance, Amos 'n' Andy was without prejudice, a slice of urban life in which discrimination and segregation were never suggested.
When the plot focused on Amos and his family, audiences encountered a sensible, working-class black couple with an attractive, well-behaved child. Here was a responsible father and a level-headed mother. Here, too, were family love and genuine affection for all the characters with whom Amos and Ruby came into contact.
Nowhere was such sentimentality—a human emotion that was never a part of the minstrel-show tradition—more visible than in the annual Christmas show. Reenacting a story that had been heard for years in the radio version of Amos ‘n’ Andy, this program concerned a tolerant and loving Andy working as Santa Claus for one day in a department store. Andy's unselfish goal was to earn money to buy his goddaughter, Amos' daughter Arbedella, a beautiful black doll. Andy's coddling of youngsters telling Santa Claus their wishes, the exchanging of gifts between Andy and Amos and Ruby, the tenderness seen in the relationship between Andy and Arbedella, and the seasonal warmth suggested by Amos' cozy home and decorated Christmas tree were capped by an emotional final scene. Here, with a choir singing off-camera, Amos interpreted the "Lord's Prayer" for his daughter who lay tucked securely in bed.
But the humanity occasionally suggested by Amos ‘n’ Andy was constantly defeated by the racist imagery projected by the series. Here was minstrelsy in its latest fashion. The legacy of Tambo and Bones and their burnt cork comedy routines was inherent in the series' characters. Neither Andy, Kingfish, nor Sapphire could utter a sentence without using incorrect grammar, malapropisms, or mispronunciations to illustrate their basic ignorance. Thus, ultimatum became "ultomato," secretary was pronounced "sekatory," legitimate became "layjiterat," and Kingfish's moaning "holy mackeral," was always exclaimed as "holy mack'l."
Amos ‘n’ Andy perpetuated the myth of the black matriarch. This was manifest in the image of shrewish women continually browbeating their men. There was no male chauvinism or sexual equality here. The series projected dominating black women and socially weak black men. Granted, Kingfish was a shiftless loafer; Sapphire's constant shrill criticism was nonetheless debilitating. And when Sapphire was backed in her attack by Mama, the verbal assault was devastating, as illustrated in a dinner-table conversation between Kingfish, Mama, and Sapphire:
Kingfish: Have some more peas, mother-in-law dear? Mama: When I want some, I'll help myself.
Kingfish: Oh, well, I just ...
Mama: Why, I got along all these years without you telling me what to eat.
Kingfish: Well, if you don't want 'em, don't take 'em. That's all right with me.
Mama: Ah, you're begrudging me the food. Well, I eat little enough without you complaining all the time.
Kingfish: Now, listen, Mama, can't we just ...
Mama: You mind your own business. I'm talkin' to my daughter.
Sapphire: George, stop pickin' on Mama!
The Kingfish always lost such confrontations. Frequently, he was shown being ejected from his own home by his victorious wife. Such scenes were all the more poignant in that he invariably stood on the apartment steps with a framed lithograph of a laughing white cavalier offsetting his own downcast facial expression. The prerecorded laugh track was always turned up at this point. In the climate that made Amos ‘n’ Andy popular for so long, it was considered hilarious to see a bumbling middle-aged black schemer being kicked out of his home by a haranguing black woman.
If African Americans looked for role models in Amos 'n' Andy, there were none to be found. Most central characters had no jobs. The Kingfish and Andy were always unemployed, and women in the series were unsalaried housewives. Amos, who appeared only fleetingly in the programs, drove a taxicab. Lightnin' was a janitor. The only professional in the regular cast was Calhoun. But he was a nefarious lawyer whose lack of professional ethics was outweighed only by his misuse of the English language. Because there were few other TV series offering positive role models for black viewers, the disservice done by this popular program is apparent.
White viewers saw in Amos 'n' Andy a deceptive picture of ghetto life. There were few legitimate social aspirations in the series. Amos and Lightnin' were content with their careers. Although there was unemployment, there was no welfare dependence and no hunger. Further, unemployment was seen as a product of personal laziness, not the result of discrimination, segregation, or inferior education. Although there was social achievement on the part of Calhoun, the lawyer was seen as an incompetent buffoon with corrupted values.
This was a patronizing picture of black society. It depreciated black maturity, rendering most of the adult characters as harmless children filled with pranks and pretensions, but ultimately unthreatening. There were no civil rights tensions in this show. Amos 'n' Andy was a false interpretation of black reality, unfairly lulling whites into complacency and unjustly reducing African Americans to a position of inferiority.