Wartime Radio And Racial Stereotyping

As ironic as it may sound, World War II had a salutary effect upon the image and position of blacks in American broadcasting. With its strong rhetoric regarding fighting for Truth and defending social convictions, the war galvanized in many black actors and white sympathizers the decision to speak forthrightly against racism and its restrictive grip on the American popular arts. The Nazi enemy, moreover, presented Americans with an insidious picture of the implications of bigotry. Thus, there arose in many people an awareness of the paradox of fighting against a racist enemy abroad, while practicing racial segregation and exclusion at home. Out of such conditions developed the most important re-evaluation of the role of African-Americans in American society since the Civil War.

More than any other person, Paul Robeson was the catalyst who sparked this black artistic reappraisal. Two months after the outbreak in Europe of World War II, Robeson's dramatic singing of the "Ballad for Americans" on the CBS series, Pursuit of Happiness, raised the entire issue of the position of blacks in American society. Written in 1935 by a young poet, John Latouche, as a hymn against intolerance and persecution, the poetic lyrics were set to stirring music in 1939 by Earl Robinson.

This lengthy song traced the history of the United States as it evolved toward the realization of the freedom and democracy inherent in the Revolutionary War. Reasserting ideals like the brotherhood and equality of all citizens, the song found pride in the fact that America was a nation of nations filled with "everybody who's nobody" and "nobody who's everybody." And when Robeson's powerful bass voice proclaimed the inexorable march toward freedom and human rights—

Out of the cheating, out of the shouting
Out of the murders and lynchings.
Out of the windbags, the patriotic spouting
Out of uncertainty and doubting"
[Copyright © 1939, 1940, renewed 1967, 1968. Robbins Music Corporation]
—he spoke for millions who felt that the time had arrived to rebuke prejudice.

Coming as it did at a time of acute national self-awareness, "Ballad for Americans" was enthusiastically received by the nation. In the broadcasting studio Robeson received an ovation that lasted fifteen minutes after the program left the air. He was called upon to perform it again on CBS radio in August 1940, in a special broadcast called All God's Children, and in September 1943, on Stage Door Canteen. In 1940 the song was orchestrated by the Philadelphia Orchestra and performed at the Republican National Convention. That same year Robeson recorded it for Victor records in a special two-record album. Clearly, "Ballad for Americans" captured the ethos of pride and reaffirmation that gripped America in those early months of the Second World War.

Robeson, however, did not remain idle after his initial success. Long a champion of racial equality, and an admirer of the Soviet Union as the fullest realization of equality yet established, Robeson became a stronger proponent for change than ever before. In public he assailed films and songs that he felt slurred black citizens. In 1942 he announced that he would no longer sing songs like "Glory Road," or other "popular folk songs or ballads that picture the Negro as ignorant or crude, or even savage." And his animosity toward films which discredited blacks caused him to announce of his own recent movie, Tales of Manhattan, "If they picket the film when it opens in New York, I'll join the picket line myself.”

On radio, Robeson promoted respect and self-respect for black Americans. On programs such as Freedom's People in September 1941, and a special salute to black actor Canada Lee on WOR in June 1941, he helped trace the development of African-American culture. When he praised the defeated Loyalist side of the Spanish Civil War on a local special entitled Five Songs for Democracy in September 1940, he made it clear that African-Americans had a duty to stand for freedom. And when in June 1943 he appeared on an NBC special program, Labor for Victory, several weeks after the Detroit race riots, he represented the fact that although the riots were a setback, the cause of freedom was still viable. Robeson was also used by the American government, and several times during the war he lent his talents to propaganda broadcasts. Thus, for example, to assist the Office of War Information in February 1944, he narrated a shortwave transmission to Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and South Africa commemorating the 135th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

Paul Robeson's model was not lost on other African-American performers. Several important entertainers joined his protest over the condition of blacks. The cast of the successful musical, Carmen Jones, in mid-1944 refused to play in Louisville or Washington, D.C. because of racial discrimination. In October 1944, Katherine Dunham spoke to an audience in Louisville and announced that her modern dance troupe would never perform there as long as blacks were forbidden to sit on the main floor among whites. "Maybe after the war," she told the audience, "we will have democracy and I can return.” Less than three months later, Lena Horne cancelled a USO performance in Little Rock because African-American soldiers were not allowed to see her evening show, while even the kitchen crew—composed of Nazi prisoners of war—was in attendance. In a similar vein, by the end of the war black newspapers were expressing a general displeasure with the forthcoming Broadway theatrical season because it did not display the serious, positive side of black society.

Throughout the war special broadcasts paid tribute to African-American accomplishments. This was especially true of black soldiers who constituted a sizable portion of the U.S. armed forces. In 1943, Fighting Men was a Mutual broadcast which had black servicemen relating their wartime experiences. That same year in a commemoration of the 116th anniversary of the African-American press, black war correspondents were heard for the first time broadcasting via shortwave from war zones in Europe and North Africa.

Men O’ War was an all-black musical program produced by the United States Navy and emanating from Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. It began as a statewide broadcast in 1943, but by the end of the war it was a weekly feature on CBS. The importance of black servicemen was dramatized in an episode of the CBS series, They Call Me Joe, a special twelve-week series in the summer of 1944 which focused upon the ethnic diversity within the American armed forces.

Chet Huntley's award-winning series, These Are Americans, produced in 1944 by KNX (Los Angeles), also dealt with blacks. In 1945, moreover, stories about black soldiers, factory workers, and journalists appeared in a CBS special, The Negro in the War. The seriousness of this program was underscored when the announcer read a cabled message from General Douglas MacArthur which stated, "There is no differentiation because of color among the soldiers of my command.”

In one sense, the irregular appearance of special broadcasts might make them seem insincere tokens meant to exploit the fact that black soldiers were needed to win the war. Yet, relative to the portrait of African-Americans in radio before the 1940s, these special programs were significantly progressive. They pictured blacks as substantial, heroic, even red-blooded and All-American citizens. Here, minstrel images were consistently shunned for the first time in American radio as blacks were presented in equality.

African-Americans even appeared as continuing characters in such traditionally white programming as soap operas. In mid-1942 a black soldier appeared in Our Gal Sunday. He returned several times during furloughs, and was used to spark conversation between Sunday and her husband about the loyalty of black servicemen to the United States. The same theme occurred on The Romance of Helen Trent where a new character, an African-American doctor, saved the heroine's life and eventually became a staff physician in a war factory.

The persistent appearance on radio of black cultural leaders like Robeson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Marian Anderson also signified that wartime respect for blacks would not be mere tokenism. Because of their personal reputations as fighters against discrimination, by their broadcasts these personalities were proclaiming the necessity and inevitability of freedom.

One of the more dramatic statements on this issue came as part of a dramatization on WABC (New York City) of the maiden voyage of the naval destroyer, U.S.S. Booker T. Washington with its all-black crew. In the broadcast, one crewman triumphantly proclaimed, "The Washington has got to be better than any ship that sailed the sea, 'cause our skipper is colored and the Hitler forces at home have said that it won't work."- The implications of such a statement—the labeling of anti-black forces as Hitlerian, the expression of black pride, and the militancy of the crew—could not have been mistaken by listeners.

Despite such progressive developments, the traditional comic roles to which black characterization had been relegated continued to flourish in radio. This was especially true of network entertainment broadcasting. Certainly Amos 'n' Andy continued to be heard, becoming in October 1943 a half-hour situation comedy instead of a fifteen-minute serial or a variety show as it had been in the past. Eddie Anderson's character, Rochester van Jones, the valet on the Jack Benny Program, was not only popular, but by the 1940s, strategic to the success of the series. And to the consternation of one writer in 1943 big-time broadcasting maintained such racist practices as never introducing black guest stars "with the appellation of Mr., Mrs., or Miss."

New stereotyped characters were developed in this period. The maid, Beulah Brown, was introduced in 1940 on NBC's revived Show Boat series, but that Mammy figure gained greater popularity in late 1944 when she appeared on The Fibber McGee and Molly Show. Played by a white man, Marlin Hurt, Beulah eventually evolved into her own series, The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show (later Beulah) in 1945. In the new series Hurt portrayed himself, Beulah, and her dim-witted boyfriend, Bill Jackson. When he died suddenly the next year, Hurt was replaced by another white man. Not until 1947 when Hattie McDaniel assumed the role was Beulah played by a black woman. Yet, even with African-American actors in the roles, these characterizations were less than innovative and flattering.

New stereotyped characters were developed in this period. The maid, Beulah Brown, was introduced in 1940 on NBC's revived Show Boat series, but that Mammy figure gained greater popularity in late 1944 when she appeared on The Fibber McGee and Molly Show. Played by a white man, Marlin Hurt, Beulah eventually evolved into her own series, The Marlin Hurt and Beulah Show (later Beulah) in 1945. In the new series Hurt portrayed himself, Beulah, and her dim-witted boyfriend, Bill Jackson. When he died suddenly the next year, Hurt was replaced by another white man. Not until 1947 when Hattie McDaniel assumed the role was Beulah played by a black woman. Yet, even with African-American actors in the roles, these characterizations were less than innovative and flattering.

Black maids flourished in the early 1940s. Lillian Randolph portrayed Birdie Lee Goggins on The Great Gildersleeve, and later played Daisy on The Billie Burke Show. Her sister, Amanda Randolph, played the maid on Abie’s Irish Rose. Ruby Dandridge appeared as Geranium on The Judy Canova Show. Stereotyped maids also emerged in several soap operas: Georgia Burke played Lily on When a Girl Marries; Gee Gee James was Tulip on Hilltop House; a maid named Chloe was introduced on The Right to Happiness; and another one appeared on Life Can Be Beautiful.

As well as the preponderance of roles depicting blacks women as housekeepers and cooks, other caricatures of black life came frequently to wartime radio. When Amos 'n' Andy became a situation comedy, black actors were hired to fill subsidiary roles formerly handled by Gosden and Correll. Ernestine Wade became the haranguing Sapphire; Eddie Green played the lawyer Stonewall; and Amanda Randolph became Sapphire's shrewish mother, Mama. On The Bob Burns Show Mantan Moreland and Ben Carter were regular Coon comedians during the 1944-1945 season, as was Nicodemus Stewart on Rudy Vallee's program for Sealtest foods in 1941. Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham appeared in early 1945 as a black ranch hand, Alamo, and joked with white actor, George "Gabby" Hayes, on The Andrews Sisters Eight-to-the-Bar Ranch program. Butterfly McQueen's portrayal of an inept secretary on The Danny Kaye Show in 1945 was not identified as a black characterization. But McQueen was a well-know black movie actress, and the role, itself, was scarcely a positive image.

One of the few non-comedic black actors who appeared regularly in radio at this time was Juano Hernandez. He played exotic types on several children's programs, including the African Kolu on Jungle Jim; the black assistant, Lothar, on Mandrake the Magician; and various Indian characters on Tennessee Jed. He also portrayed Mr. Bones on the soap opera We Love and Learn.

Nonetheless, the liberal lesson of World War II was not lost on network radio. In increasing numbers, national series and special broadcasts challenged the prejudices of the past. Beginning in 1942, Casey, Crime Photographer, a popular crime drama on CBS, featured a non-stereotyped black photographer, Ernie, who was played by Juano Hernandez. Jazz musicians Herman Chittison and Teddy Wilson also appeared on the program. When Duffy’s Tavern premiered in 1941, the successful comedy series featured Eddie Green as a waiter, and music for the show was provided by John Kirby and his Orchestra.

Black characters were boldly enacted in several of the distinguished radio plays written and directed by Norman Corwin (luring the war years. In April 1943, director-producer William N. Robson, on his award-winning Man Behind the Gun series, dramatized the true story of an all-black Coast Guard cutter, the U.S.S. Campbell, which had sunk six enemy submarines.

History was made in June 1944, when Canada Lee was selected to narrate an NBC program, Unofficial Ambassadors. What was striking about the selection was that Lee was black and the program was neither about blacks nor demanded an African-American narrator. Accounting for this significant decision, a spokesman for the Young Men's Christian Association, sponsors of the program, asserted that Lee was chosen "solely for his acting abilities." The following month, the appearance of black actor Maurice Ellis in the role of a white forest ranger on the top-ranked "Mr. District Attorney" was such a departure from tradition that it was reported in Variety as news story.

Bigotry of the past was particularly challenged in the many special broadcasts which featured prominent white Americans in appeals for tolerance and brotherhood. The most memorable of these programs was An Open Letter on Race Hatred, written and directed by William N. Robson, and featuring an appearance by former Republican candidate for President Wendell Willkie. The program was broadcast on CBS on the evening of Saturday, July 24, 1943, one month after a race riot in Detroit had resulted in thirty-five deaths. In documentary fashion, Robson's program sought the causes of that riot. But from the beginning of the broadcast, listeners knew that the implications of that battle were even more ominous for, as the announcer declared:

 Dear Fellow Americans: What you are about to hear may anger you. What you are about to hear may sound incredible to you. You may doubt that such things can happen today in this supposedly united nation. But we assure you, everything you are about to hear is true. And so we ask you to spend thirty minutes with us, facing quietly and without passion or prejudice, a danger which threatens all of us. A danger so great that if it is not met and conquered now, even though we win this war, we shall be defeated in victory; and the peace which follows will for us be a horror of chaos, lawlessness, and bloodshed. This danger is race hatred.

The program was uncompromising with the rioters, showing how their action cost the war effort one million man-hours of production in Detroit armament plants; how the riots played into the hands of propagandists in Japan and Germany who offered the world alternatives to the failing American system; and how the Detroit riots had caused "democracy to go up in smoke and trickle away in the bloody gutters." At the end of the broadcast, when Willkie spoke his own postscript, the seriousness of the broadcast was fully understood.

The race problem in America was openly discussed in many wartime special programs. Too Long, America in March 1945, starred Edward G. Robinson and Rex Ingram, and spoke of the progress being made in employment of blacks. Fiorello LaGuardia also added his prestige as mayor of New York City by appearing on the program. Rex Stout, literary creator of the noted detective, Nero Wolfe, was an outspoken radio critic of racial prejudice. During the war he was head of the War Writers Board and hosted several series, including Council for Democracy in 1941, and Our Secret Weapon in 1942, in which he attacked racial discrimination. In May 1944, Stout carried his message directly to members of the Radio Writers Guild, scoring them for the persistence of the "white Protestant Anglo-Saxon myth" in their scripts.

In December 1944, the prestigious CBS series, People's Platform, presented a forthright discussion on the subject, "Is the South Solving Its Race Problem?" Further, on several occasions the Blue Network on America's Town Meeting of the Air debated racial issues. For example, on May 28, 1942, the participants were all blacks; and on July 15, 1943, and February 17, 1944, the integrated panels included authorities such as author and editor, Carey McWilliams, and the black poet and author, Langston Hughes.

One of the strongest and most impressive individual denunciations of racism came from Kate Smith, perhaps the most influential woman in the history of radio. Speaking on We, the People in early 1945, Smith talked poignantly about the future of a postwar world still plagued by racial intolerance:

 It seems to me that faith in the decency of human beings is what we must have more of, if there is to be a future for all of us in this world. We read in the papers every day about conferences on the best way to keep the peace. Well, I'm not an expert on foreign affairs—and I don't pretend to know all the complex things that will have to be done for a lasting peace. But I am a human being—and I do know something about people. I know that our statesmen—our armies of occupation—our military strategists—may all fail if the peoples of the world don't learn to understand and tolerate each other. Race hatreds—social prejudices—religious bigotry—they are all the diseases that eat away the fibers of peace. Unless they are exterminated it's inevitable that we will have another war. And where are they going to be exterminated? At a conference table in Geneva? Not by a long shot. In your own city—your church—your children's school—perhaps in your own home. You and I must do it—every father and mother in the world, every teacher, everyone who can rightfully call himself a human being. Yes, it seems to me that the one thing the peoples of the world have got to learn if we are ever to have a lasting peace, is—tolerance. Of what use will it be if the lights go on again all over the world—if they don't go on ... in our hearts.

Importantly, the sponsors of the program received over twenty thousand requests for a reprint of the statement.

Of all the innovations to emerge in the war years, the most impressive series treating the condition of blacks in a prejudiced environment was New World A-Coming. This weekly sustaining series premiered in March 1944 on WMCA. It remained on that station until it was canceled in 1957. New World A-Coming began as a dramatization of the book of the same title written by Roi Ottley. It sought to reveal the inner meaning of black life in America. With Canada Lee as narrator, and with integrated casts that included personalities such as Leigh Whipper, Josh White, Mary Lou Williams, Alexander Scourby, and Mercedes McCambridge, New World A-Coming soon moved beyond the scope of Ottley's book and took up the general theme of racial inequality in America.

In its premier broadcast for the 1945-1946 season, for example, it dramatized Wendell Willkie's controversial treatise, One World. In October 1946, is presented Will Geer in a scathing indictment of the racist Senator Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi. Although the series always maintained its original commitment to dramatizing injustices against black citizens, by the 1950s it was probing discrimination against Puerto Ricans in New York City, the plight of war refugees still living in European camps, the nature of apartheid in South Africa, and the techniques of torture used on American military prisoners by the Communist Chinese and North Koreans.

During the first half of the 1940s, the situation of blacks in American broadcasting underwent a serious reappraisal. Caused primarily by World War II and the efforts of black servicemen fighting against international racists, radio in the United States consistently began portraying blacks as it had never attempted to do in the past. Special programs and series extolled black culture, achievement, and heroism. They pointed at injustice and demanded freedom of opportunity. These programs used words that were alien to prewar radio: brotherhood, integration, equality, prejudice. Spurred by the courage and conviction of individual entertainers, moreover, black actors protested employment policies and called for a more realistic portrayal of their race.

Certainly, this period did not produce a revolution in radio or the popular arts. Patterns from the past continued and the Toms, Coons, and Mammies from minstrelsy survived. Nevertheless, the significance of this era was twofold. On the one hand, new roles and new images of African-Americans entered radio to stay. For every comic type, intelligent, mature characterizations could be found. For every program that slurred blacks, there were programs now that rightfully praised their contributions to American civilization.

On the other hand, the issues and tensions of World War II precipitated a general liberalization within society that would be felt in all forms of the popular arts. Film, literature, pop music, and radio explored new styles and objectives. The probe—questioning, re-evaluating, searching—became an operative motif in much of popular culture. Within radio, this was observable as a continuation, and even acceleration, of the liberalism fostered during the war. Although these developments did not issue forth a Golden Age in terms of America's treatment of its ethnic minorities, a significant stride toward freedom had been achieved. It was a first step, and it shifted the black social cause to a new plateau upon which later civil libertarians and reformers could build.

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