By Bethan Davis
Remembrance of America’s ‘Golden Age of Radio’ often leaves out African-American contributions. The 1920s gave way to some opportunities in broadcasting for black musicians and actors, but historian Erik Barnouw firmly argued they had a ‘dwindling role’ in radio. The recurrent and popular programs like ‘The Jack and Benny Show’ were incredibly racist, through either being minstrel shows or having black actors perform stereotypical roles such as criminals or sassy female maids.
Yet the Archives of African American Music and Culture illustrate that radio was still an important medium for African-Americans at the time. White advertisers and radio CEOs began to capitalise on African-American migration to the north and jazz’s growing popularity within white circles. A fundamental step was the airing of “The All-Negro Hour” on WSBC, Chicago, in 1929, a weekly variety show dedicated to showcase African-American entertainers. Soon, even more programs created by African-Americans began to spread from Chicago to other Northern states. While these programs were still consumed by a white audience, they unapologetically explored African-American politics and music, carving out a space for African-Americans sonically, live on air.
Destination Freedom was the pinnacle of Black Radio. Aired between 1948-1950, on WMAQ, Chicago, its creator Richard Durham unfolded the real-life stories of past and present black progressives and demonstrated how each subject fought, and struggled, for freedom. With his experience in broadcasting, and his frustration at the inequality African-Americans faced daily, Durham believed he could exploit this very medium to share black history and promote civil rights.
Historian Barbara Savage studied Destination Freedom in her book ‘Broadcasting Freedom’, and pressed the show was unlike any other because it moulded black history into “a living political argument.” Durham surrounded himself with African-American heroes such as Frederick Douglass, but also made sure to focus on the forgotten stories. In its premier episode, Durham focused on the legacy of Crispus Attucks. Using a first-person narrative, Attucks retold his story as he escapes his enslaver but is found by a villager who questions his status. To which Attucks proudly exclaims; “I am my own master… I will never return to slavery alive.” The theme of radical resistance to slavery seeped through all Durham’s scripts. While Attucks died first in the Boston Massacre, he represented what Durham valued in all African-Americans: courage and tenacity, no matter its size in the face of adversity.
Destination Freedom was incredibly powerful in the way the show stirred emotion. In ‘Railway to Freedom’ Harriet Tubman is assaulted by her enslaver. The tension built in her monologue, “I saw him lift the iron bar,” paired with a crescendo of ethereal sounds to the moment of impact, “Then his hands struck down!” manufactured a visceral experience of slavery. While white Americans were unable to feel the pain of enslavement, moments like these served to not only raise awareness, but forced listeners to witness the horrors African-Americans faced under slavery.
Furthermore, the series was a sonic manifestation of Durham’s ideology. He was a universalist who believed the struggle of African-Americans was parallel to the struggles of all people who were exploited and oppressed. Durham hoped the series would be a symbol of hope for all marginalised groups across the world, as his wife, Clarice Davis Durham said in a later interview: “he wanted people to feel pride in themselves, and see themselves as heroic and not as helpless.” And he achieved this greatly through his portrayal of African-American heroines.
One of Durham’s particular favourites was Ida B Wells, a vociferous anti-lynching campaigner, who he described as: “Restless like a river and tongue like a flamin’ sword.” She too was a universalist, who declared freedom which “allowed the bigoted or the powerful to restrict the freedom of others was no freedom at all.” Durham’s was the first radio show to empower African-American women, and Destination Freedom made a strict point that African-American women have a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Although the series was limited to Chicago and only ran for two years, Destination Freedom was timeless in its evocative broadcasting of the African-American struggle for equality. The show won numerous awards from the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, the National Negro Museum and Historical Foundation in 1949, as well as the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1950. Yet Durham’s contributions are not only excluded from the Golden Age of Radio, but also the learned view of the Civil Rights Movement. Durham’s work sat on the precipice of Martin Luther King’s campaigning and was unfortunately overshadowed.
At the time, the Golden Age of Radio certainly left out African-American contributions except in the form of stereotypical or reduced roles. However, African-Americans welcomed the introduction of a new platform to program black history and culture. Destination Freedom presented an alternative black voice to be heard on the radio, which challenged these stereotypical portrayals and placed African-American lives at the heart of American history. Moreover, these radio shows aided and expanded concepts of Americanism and freedom in an era which encompassed the banning of discrimination in federal employment and phasing out of segregation.
We can see Destination Freedom as the beginning of a lineage of journalistic works carved out to extend the Civil Rights struggle and celebrate Black achievements. Even today, podcasting functions as a novel, political platform to challenge concepts of race and share African-American history.
● Archives of African American Music and Culture ‘Golden Age off Black Radio – Part 1: The Early Years’, Indiana University, Archives of African American Music and Culture, https://aaamc.indiana.edu/Collections/Digital-Exhibits
● Dowd Hall, J. ‘The long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past’, Journal of American History 91.4 (2005), p. 1233-1263 ● MacDonald, J F. ‘Radio’s Black Heritage: Destination Freedom, 1948-1950’, Phylon, 39:1, (1978) pp. 66-73
● Savage B. Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948, (Chapel Hill, 1999)
● WIlliams, S. ‘Destination Freedom: A Historic Radio Series About Black Life’, Journal of Radio & Audio Media 23:3, (2016) p.271