Monday, February 6, 2017

African Americans on Old Time Radio: New World A Coming on Life Behind Newspaper Headlines (1944)

In my fourth entry in my African Americans on Old Time Radio, I want to share a program that was broadcast over WMCA in New York City in the 1940s to showcase the contributions of that community in broader society.  Over the last few episodes, we have heard representations of African American actors in service roles like valets and house-keepers.  But thanks to this great series from Roi Ottley, we hear a different story over the radio in the 1940s to showcase the contributions of African Americans in all areas of society.  As a personal reference, I remember always looking at the WMCA radio transmitter building near the New Jersey Turnpike on the Belleville Turnpike in the wetlands of Northern Jersey.

This year to celebrate National African American History Month in February, I am going highlight a new series on my blog.  This year, I will feature African Americans during the Golden Age of Radio - or Old Time Radio - during the 1930s through the 1950s.  I wanted to start this blog last year, but alas...better late than never.  I hope to have a great assortment of programs that showcase the great contributions of African Americans in mainstream radio when Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination were regular obstacles facing artists of color.


Newspapers in the library - November 2008 (University of Michigan)

New World A Coming was a a ground breaking book by Roi Ottley in 1943.  Ottley was a journalist who wrote for the Amsterdam News in the 1930s, where he gained a great understanding of the African American Community in New York, especially Harlem.  He went to St. Bonaventure University before transferring to the University of Michigan where he studied journalism (Go Blue!)  In 1943, Ottley wrote New World A-Coming, and provided an overview of life in Harlem from the 1920s and 30s.  The book became a best seller and won the Peabody Award.  The year after the book came out, WMCA in New York City produced a series with Ottley as the writer to share these stories to an even broader audience.  The Amsterdam News would report the following story after the first episode aired:

"A New World" Holds Premier
S.W. Garlington, New York Amsterdam News (March 11, 1944), page 1
"With the sweeping fury of a resurrection - a new world is coming!"  With this announcement last Sunday over WMCA the premier of the radio program "New World A-Coming" was introduced to the audience of the world's leading independent radio station.  As the music started, one was reminded of "Mood Indigo," but instead it was "New World A-Coming," written by Duke Ellington for the series.
The program was both entertaining and informative.  Even more, it did not pull punches in dramatizing injustices to the Negro and suggested a square deal on all fronts.
Canada Lee, famous actor, served as narrator, the student orchestra furnished the music and a host of actors relayed the various stories - bits of Americana one never seen in the daily press.
The City-Wide Citizens Community on Harlem sponsored the program - to run for 26 weeks - in hope of making democracy less of a dream and more of a reality.  Columnist Dorothy Norman spoke for the committee.  Roi Ottley, former Amsterdam-News staff writer and author of the best-selling NEW WORLD A-COMING, from which the series is based, also spoke.
Each Sunday, at 3:03 p. m., for the next 25 weeks.  WMCA and the City-Wide Citizens Committee on Harlem and accompanying artists will present to the radio world a 27-minute program of entertainment and information, designed to reassure the fact that A NEW WORLD IS COMING.
On April 23, 1944, the episode that I am featuring was first aired.  Called "The Story Behind The Headline In The Negro Press", it showcased the need and function of the 200 or so African American newspapers across the country.  As pointed out in this episode, while many members of the African American community read the main daily newspapers for their cities, they also read the "Negro Press" to get stories not covered by mainstream papers. This great episode features numerous vignettes that reveal what might have taken place as the editorial boards discussed what to public in the African American papers.  It also showcased the issues of blatant discrimination that was prevalent in the country in the 1940s, especially for African American soldiers and employees in the war effort.  The show was written by Roi Ottley (who wrote over 20 of the episodes) and featured actors Canada Lee, Maxine Sullivan, Leigh Whipper, Clarence Foster, David Kerman, Paula Bowersmith, Randolph Eckles among others.  The theme music was from the great musician Duke Ellington.  I hope you enjoy this great item from New World A Coming.
African Americans on Old Time Radio:

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