radio

Blacks As Blacks

Although audiences at home had no way of discerning from a voice the skin color of a broadcaster, black professional entertainers were invariably cast in African-American roles. Such a pattern caused one critic to label radio as "the worst offender of the Negro entertainer." Yet, within the curtailed scope of activity permitted their talent, blacks were a part of radio from its earliest days. As musicians, for instance, they had been contributing to broadcasting since the early 1920s. Whether in obscure jazz ensembles, large dance orchestras, religious choirs, or as performers on recorded music, African-American talent was integral to the development of popular music on radio. As early as 1924 the Hampton Institute Choir was appearing on stations in New York City. The vaudeville and film personality, Flournoy Miller, told Edmerson that he and his famous partner, Aubrey Lyles, were broadcasting in 1922. And by the late 1920s black musical performers like Noble Sissle, Fess Williams, and the Pace Jubilee Negro Singers were heard on the air.

In the early 1930s, with the new networks developing a more professional and mature attitude toward radio, African-American singers and musicians were appearing regularly. In 1932 and 1933 Paul Robeson was the featured singer on programs sponsored by General Electric and Eastman Kodak. At the same time Ethel Waters had her own program sponsored by the American Oil Company. Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Art Tatum had sustaining series. Among the talents appearing on other network series were the Mills Brothers, Nina Mae McKinney, the Four Southern Singers, the Four Sheiks of Harmony, The Babolene Boys, and Jules Bledsoe.

Important, too, were the many dance orchestras that were broadcasting. From radio studios, night clubs, and dance halls, black bands played the pulsating, rhythmic music which, by the second half of the decade, would be picked up by white bands and captivate the nation as "swing" music. Typical of the popularity of "Harlem dance rhythms" in the early 1930s, the radio log of the New York Times for the week beginning November 27, 1932, reveals broadcasts by such African-American musicians as Chick Webb, Don Redman (four nights per week over two different stations) , and Cab Calloway (seven nights per week over three different stations).

As well as popular music, black gospel music was also an important part of radio programming by the 1930s. Choral groups, like the Southernaires, appeared regularly in their own shows, or as background singers on the many minstrel programs, such as on Plantation Nights on KFI (Los Angeles) in 1932, where the “imaginary locale is an old Southern plantation where darkies come to serenade the owner.” In October 1933, station WBZ (Boston) reported that more than one percent of its air time was devoted to African-American spirituals. This figure is more impressive, however, when it is noted that this was a larger figure than that for detective dramas, political speeches, or quiz shows at that station. The interest in gospel music probably was responsible for the CBS decision to broadcast from the Church of God in Washington, D.C., the religious services of the Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, a feature which irregularly appeared on radio until the 1950s.

Although they did not flourish on radio, black comedians were also an ingredient of early broadcasting. The greatest demand for these entertainers was to fill the stereotyped roles of stage comedy. This form of humor drew its impetus from minstrel shows and their eventual offshoot, vaudeville. Here the comedy dealt in broad ethnic and racial characterization which was rigorously offensive and of questionable entertainment value by the 1930s.

Nevertheless, black actors accepted such roles because they needed employment. Thus, Ernest Whitman and Eddie Green appeared as a "coon act" on the Maxwell House Show Boat program in its first season on NBC. Hattie McDaniel brought her "mammy" personality from the Optimistic Doughnut Hour over KNX (Los Angeles) in 1932, to the Show Boat series in the early 1930s. In the period 1930-1933, Lillian Randolph played with Billy Mitchell in a comedy feature, Lulu and Leander, on WXYZ (Detroit). Johnny Lee appeared in Slick and Slim, an all-black series on WHN (New York City) in 1932. And the stereotyped humorous black maid and butler appeared in network radio as early as 1932 when Georgia Burke portrayed Gardenia on the soap opera, Betty and Bob, and Ernest Whitman portrayed Awful on The Gibson Family.

These were not necessarily facile assignments for the actors. Several complained of the difficulty they encountered trying to affect the accents of minstrel show end men. Lillian Randolph studied for three months with a white vocal coach before developing her Negro dialect. Johnny Lee admitted that he, too, "had to learn to talk as white people believed Negroes talked." Failure to develop the proper minstrel accent might have been professionally disastrous. Wonderful Smith, a popular comedian on the Red Skelton Show in the 1940s, confessed that he was dropped from the series in 1948 because, "I had difficulty sounding as Negroid as they expected."

If black entertainers contributed to radio in its early years, this achievement was practically limited to music and comedy performances. As dramatic actors, there was little opportunity for blacks. One of the few exceptions was the popular CBS series, John Henry, Black River Giant. The series was broadcast in 1933 and featured Juano Hernandez, Rose McClendon, Dorothy Caul, and Jack McDowell. According to an early fan magazine, it was "a fresh and startling program" which stood out, "for John Henry was a man." Speaking of his role, Hernandez noted that John Henry was a legendary figure emanating from southern labor gangs, and that there were three qualities that made a hero in such conditions: "First, he must be powerful in his strength; second, he must be bad; and third, he must be a success with the ladies. John Henry, the legend says, was a powerful, bad ladies' man."

Black dramatic actors found employment scarce. They were only cast as blacks, and since many white actors had mastered the minstrel accent, there was competition for the few roles that did exist. A few feeble attempts were made, nonetheless, by black actors who sought to create enduring radio series and to develop their own theatrical organizations to employ their services.

In 1935, WMCA introduced A Harlem Family, a serial drama produced for the Adult Education Project of the New York City Board of Education. Although the local series did not remain long on the air, it featured an all-black cast, and was written and directed by African-Americans. The same station also probed an uncharted dimension of black entertainment when, in 1935, it broadcast Mercedes Gilbert as "the colored poetess." In 1933 the noted black opera star, Kenneth Spenser, appeared in San Francisco as the lead in an all-black series, Deacon Brown and His Peacemakers, which featured a blending of gospel songs, stereotyped humor, and dramatic story line. Also in the early 1930s, Carleton Moss organized a group of legitimate actors into the Lafayette Players. This ensemble, which broadcast weekly radio dramas of black life on WJZ (New York City), included Ernest Whitman, Rose McClendon, Richard Huey, Leigh Whipper, Frank Wilson, and Edna Thompson.

All of the black dramatic series were short-lived. This is ironic, however, because research in 1935 showed that tastes among black audiences tended strongly toward drama. A poll of movie exhibitors revealed that black theater patrons preferred: (1) "Drama, the heavier the better, and if sentimental, heavily so"; (2) "Mystery, with special emphasis upon the more horrific films"; and (3) "Gangster." Interestingly, musicals were ranked fourth, and comedies were sixth. The answer to this incongruity, however, lies in the economics of radio and its reflection of American popular tastes.

Although there were more than thirteen million African-Americans in the mid-1930s, the vast majority lived in poor conditions. Only in the large Eastern and Midwestern cities did they create a sizable consumer force. Figures from the federal census of 1930 reveal, moreover, that blacks owned significantly fewer radio sets than did the rest of the population. As the following chart suggests, compared to other demographic entities, blacks were not listening to radio as much as whites because receivers were not as available.

Color and Nativity of Families With Radios
Group
Urban Rural
Farm
Rural
Non-Farm
Whites 56.3% 24.0% 37.4%
Foreign-Born Whites 46.2 32.0 35.1
Blacks 14.4 0.3 3.0
National Average 50.0 20.8 33.7

Given these figures, radio advertisers were unwilling to sponsor programs that appealed specifically to black audiences. Even black businessmen failed to invest regularly in such programming. This situation was compounded by the fact that white audiences, basically ignorant of black realities and prejudiced toward them, accepted blacks in entertainment only in traditional terms of comedy and music.

Such bigotry lay deep in the social, political, and cultural past of the United States. And by this date little had been done to correct such attitudes. Therefore, white advertisers, who aimed their commercials at the broadest consumer group possible, were often unwilling to sponsor black talent. They feared becoming too closely associated with African-Americans, thereby alienating white consumers.

Speaking in 1950, black actor Frank Silvera suggested that if Pillsbury were to sponsor a show with a black actor outside the acceptable stereotype, and “if it gets out that [they] were pushing Negro talent on a Pillsbury program, the next thing you know it would be branded as 'nigger flour' and it would never move.” This was also the opinion of Chet Huntley who suggested that such sensitivity on the part of sponsors also resulted in less news coverage of the African-American community: "I presume that the reason for less Negro news was due to sales resistance. Sponsors would probably fear boycott of their products."

Some African-American business and civic leaders tried to overcome this prejudiced reality. In 1930 the Harlem Broadcasting Corporation attempted to purchase a radio station in New York City. Although its negotiations failed, this organization also supported local black talent by buying time on local and network broadcasts. Still another black company, the Gold Star Radio and Television Corporation, tried without success in 1937 to purchase the rights to erect all-black stations in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

Private citizens and civic institutions occasionally attacked stereotyped programs inimical to African-American interests. In this regard, newspapers were active. In 1931 the Pittsburgh Courier, a black weekly journal, sought to petition the Federal Radio Commission to cancel Amos ‘n’ Andy. Although it was unsuccessful in its drive, the newspaper made three strong points about the program: 1) that it represented exploitation of blacks for the commercial benefit of whites; 2) that the characters in the series were detrimental to the self-respect and general advancement of black society; and 3) that the series placed business activities between blacks in a negative light.

Four years later the Baltimore Afro-American, then the largest black newspaper in the nation, conducted a similar campaign. This undertaking, however, was aimed at all stations and programs which insulted blacks. This weekly newspaper asked readers throughout the United States to inform it of epithets, belittling remarks, and racial disparagements heard on the air. The journal, in turn, promised to publish the names of the offenders, and to seek retribution through complaints to the sponsors of such broadcasts.

Although "lily-white" dramas gained greater popularity in radio by the end of the 1930s, black musicians and comedians continued to broadcast. Many such entertainers had their own programs. In 1935, for example, several musical personalities had local and network radio series. These included Nobel Sissle, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Bob Howard, and Adelaide Hall. In 1936 Duke Ellington appeared on NBC in his own show. The following year Louis Armstrong had a network series sponsored by Fleischmann's Yeast, but it ran for only thirteen weeks. And in 1938 Recitals in Rhythm featured Maxine Sullivan.

Blacks were also affected by the amateur craze which swept radio in the late 1930s. Vine Street Varieties, hosted by blues singer Jimmy Ruffin, was aired in 1938 over WHB (Kansas City, Missouri). The same year KEHE (Los Angeles) produced a talent revue directed at the 65,000 African-Americans residing in that city. Two programs called Amateur Night in Harlem began in New York City in the spring of 1935. The one on WNEW soon left the air, but the WMCA production eventually gained sponsors and remained on that station for fifteen years. In 1952 the program was shifted to the ABC network and ran for two more years as The Original Harlem Amateur Hour, hosted now by celebrities such as jazz bandleaders Lucky Millinder and Dizzy Gillespie, and singer-actress Ethel Waters.

Black entertainers also appeared as regular, featured characters on several musical and comedy programs in the second half of the 1930s. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were heard on Magnolia Blossoms over WSM (Nashville). Clarence Muse lent his rich baritone voice to Irvin S. Cobb's popular Plantation Party series in 1936. As well as having her own show, singer Maxine Sullivan in 1938 was a regular on the CBS musical, Saturday Night Sewing Club. Comedienne Hattie Noel in 1938 was a hit on The Eddie Cantor Show. But the most successful black actor in a radio series was also one of the most controversial, for in mid-1937 Eddie Anderson began his long association with the character "Rochester" on the top-ranked Jack Benny Program.

In his role as Benny's valet and chauffeur, Anderson played Rochester as a strong, yet stereotyped personality. Woman-chasing, dice-throwing, and shiftlessness were all part of his radio character. Critics would suggest later that because Rochester often stood up to his employer and showed up Benny's comedic traits—cheapness, impracticality, pretentiousness, boorishness—he was actually a positive black character. Despite Rochester's assertiveness around Jack Benny (done, obviously, for comedic effect only), he was a stereotyped character and created no significant breakthroughs toward a mature portrayal of blacks.

In his early years with the program, Rochester was especially identified with the conventions white society derogatorily associated with African-Americans. This condition was strongly illustrated in The Jack Benny Program broadcast on April 3, 1938. With Benny and Rochester on a train returning to Los Angeles from New York City, the following dialogue touched upon several familiar clichés

Benny: Well, we would have been home yesterday if you hadn't gotten off at Albuquerque to look at those Indians.
Rochester: I thought I'se back in Harlem.
Benny: Harlem? I told you before, all those people at the station were Indians.
Rochester: Indians?
Benny: Yes.
Rochester: Well, just the same, I saw a papoose eatin' a pork chop.
Benny: Well, what of it? He can be an Indian and still eat a pork chop.
Rochester: I know, but he had it between two slices of watermelon.
Benny: Alright, you win. But I want to tell you something, Rochester. This is the last time I'm going to take you to New York. You're supposed to help me. The only time I saw you was when you needed money. Why you spent more than I did.
Rochester: That ain't no record.
Benny: Never mind that. And another thing, you lied to me. You told me you needed the money for a new suit. Now, where is it?
Rochester: The suit?
Benny: Yes, the suit!
Rochester: You mean the one I had my heart set on?
Benny: Yeah, where is that new suit I gave you the money for?
Rochester: Well, I'll tell ya, boss. I was on my way to the store and got mixed up in a game of African badminton.
Benny: Oh, so you lost your suit in a crap game, huh?
Rochester: Yes, sir. I rolled myself right out of the Easter parade.

Although such minstrel imagery was not always written into Rochester's lines, as late as 1950 black organizations protested specific broadcasts which, they felt, went beyond the boundaries of good taste.

When in the mid-1930s the large variety programs turned increasingly to the use of celebrity guest stars to attract listeners, many black personalities appeared on the most popular shows in radio. During the period 1935-1937, for example, Shell Chateau, hosted by Al Jolson and later Wallace Beery and Joe Cook, welcomed entertainers such as Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Bill Robinson, the Juanita Hall Choir, Stepin Fetchit, Thomas "Fats" Waller, and Juano Hernandez. The Rudy Vallee Show in this period hosted such black actors and musicians as Bill Robinson, Rex Ingram, Eddie Green, Fats Waller, Mantan Moreland, Cab Calloway, Mrs. Jesse Owens, Amanda Randolph, the Charioteers, and Flournoy Miller. Importantly, these appearances did not relegate the guests to playing stereotyped characterizations. When Bill Robinson appeared on The Rudy Vallee Show the production staff constructed an elaborate stage where his famous tap and soft-shoe dances could be picked up by the microphones. Such treatment was uncommon for a guest star making only a single broadcast.

More impressive, however, was Paul Robeson's appearance on Shell Chateau in the fall of 1935. As well as sing a rendition of his popular song, "Water Boy," Robeson enacted a scene about a stalwart African chief, Neabongo of the Balu tribe, who pitted his authority against the fervor of his people for war. Speaking forcefully at a meeting of the tribe, Robeson asserted:

Silence! The drums lie! There will be no war for the Balus! For fifty moons have we had peace, and peace we will keep. We want no war. And on this side of the river there will be no war. We have all we need. We have homes; our crops are good; we have water from the great river. We do not need war. And war we will not have! Do you want your fathers and brothers killed? Do you want your wives and daughters carried away into slavery by men of the North Country Lobengula, have you forgotten the last time we beat the war drums? Have you forgotten your son—shot through the heart by the poisoned arrows of the Acholie? If the warriors of the North Country cross our borders, then we will fight. But while I am chief, we will attack no one. Your wives and daughters will not be carried into slavery. Your sons will not be killed. Remember the law. We have had happiness with the law. We must all be friends. We must all work together. The Balus will have peace [murmurs of approval from the tribe]. Let us remember Chonga, our great ancestor. Let us be strong. Let us be wise. Come, into our canoes. Away we go!

It was a bold performance, intended to exploit Robeson's well-known progressive and pacifist politics, as well as to tie in with his recent portrayal of an African chief in the British motion picture, Sanders of the River. It also fit the general isolationist temper of the American people in the mid-1930s. In this broadcast, Robeson's characterization of an adroit, rational, and strong leader of men was possibly the most sophisticated role offered to a black actor in the history of American radio before World War II.

By the beginning of the Second World War, participation by African-Americans in radio was expanding its boundaries. This is not to suggest that prejudice had been surmounted within the industry and that stereotypes had been abandoned. But advancements were achieved especially among local stations where advertisers and station management recognized the growing importance of appealing to black listeners. On November 30, 1935, station WJTL (Atlanta) pioneered black news programming when it initiated a quarter-hour daily news broadcast devoted entirely to African-Americans and read by African-Americans. In mid-1937, Afro-America Speaks was introduced as a weekly feature on WKY (Oklahoma City). This series featured man-in-the-street interviews with residents of the black community. On WSBC Jack L. Cooper pioneered black broadcasting in Chicago. By 1939, Cooper weekly was airing five and one-half hours of programs meant specifically for black listeners. His shows contained live performances by local choirs, recorded swing music, and a public service feature, Search for Missing Persons, which that year helped families and the Chicago Police Department locate seven hundred missing people throughout the country.

There are even indications that by the late 1930s live blues performances were being broadcast in Jackson, Mississippi. With the opening in 1941 of station KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and the debut that same year of Sonny Boy Williamson on King Biscuit Time, this form of African-American folk music came to radio on a regular basis. The Williamson series was so successful that within a few years KFFA had launched two other live blues programs sponsored by Bright Star Flour and by Mother's Best Flour, and featuring, among others, the bands of Robert Nighthawk and Robert Jr. Lockwood.

Still another format in which African-American talent was innovatively utilized was the quiz program. In July 1941, Cab Calloway's Quizzical brought to WOR (New York City) a blend of music, humor, and audience participation in an all-black quiz show. In February 1942, when Mutual, of which WOR was the key station, was unable or unwilling to make this local hit program a network feature, this quizzer was acquired by the Blue Network. On this network, the show emanated weekly from different black communities on the East Coast and in the Northeast. Although it was cancelled after six months on the Blue Network, the program represented another expansion of African-American talent into an area of broadcasting traditionally reserved for whites. Despite such innovations, however, it would not be until World War II that conditions for blacks in radio would be altered, substantially and irreversibly.

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