History, Memory, and the Power of Black Radio

Harlem residents in front of a shop listening to the radio, 1930s (Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

Between 1948 and 1950, a radio series called Destination Freedom aired on WMAQ, a local Chicago NBC station. Richard Durham created Destination Freedom in an attempt to profile significant African American historical figures and their contributions to American democracy and freedom. Durham was an African American journalist, poet, dramatist, labor organizer, and one-time Communist Party member, who began his career as part of the Writer’s Project of the WPA and later worked as a writer for The Chicago Defender. In an era when African Americans were increasingly visible in the arts, though not always in positive roles, Durham’s scripts attempted to reclaim a triumphant narrative of African American history. Peppered throughout this platform were some Black radio stars, though they often appeared in only comedic shows that perpetrated age-old Black stereotypes and minstrelsy. As Barbara Savage explains in Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and The Politics of Race, 1938-1948 (1999), Durham’s show was unlike any other because his work molded Black history into a “living political argument.”

On June 27, 1948, the first episode of Destination Freedom aired on WMAQ. Before the introduction of the series, a voice sang the African American spiritual “Oh, Freedom,” and the classic lines, “And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free,” played into the series’ opening credits. The episode that followed, “The Knock Kneed Man,” told the story of Crispus Attucks, a former slave who was killed during the Boston Massacre and widely considered to be the first casualty of the Revolutionary War. At the beginning of the episode, Crispus Attucks escapes from his master William Brown and is found by a local man who asks Attucks if he is a slave. Attucks proudly claims “I am my own master [….] I will never return to slavery alive.” The theme of radical resistance to slavery and its ties to the American Revolution and American democratic project was highlighted in the premiere episode of the series.

The themes of slavery and liberation played central roles in several of Durham’s radio plays, and Crispus Attucks symbolized what Durham saw worth celebrating and highlighting in the actions of enslaved and formerly enslaved persons. Resistance was an important part of this narrative, but so was an adherence to the democratic and revolutionary principles that guided the founding fathers of the United States. In fact, the description of Destination Freedom that ran at the beginning of each program began by saying that the series was “dramatizing the great democratic traditions of the Negro people.” In 1948, focusing on the narratives of the enslaved as both participants in their freedom and as active resistors to slavery was relatively new in media. Their portrayal as agents of American democratic principles on this medium was revolutionary.

Richard Durham

Durham’s work on Destination Freedom built on the historical approach of Herbert Aptheker’s groundbreaking book, American Negro Slave Revolts, first published in 1943, which highlighted the consistent presence of resistance among slaves in the US. Aptheker was notably a regular contributor to the series. The series was funded almost entirely by WMAQ, an NBC affiliate (and ironically the same station that introduced Amos n’ Andy years before)—a fact that made Durham’s tenure at the helm rife with political tensions. Durham and the in-house writers at NBC wrestled frequently over the supposed militant tone of his work. In a blistering letter to WMAQ after his Crispus Attucks script was sent back with substantial edits, he responded that he “sought to portray Negro people as they actually are” and that “a Negro character will be rebellious, biting, scorning, angry, cocky, as the occasion calls for—not forever humble, meek, etc. as some would imagine him.” The station notably refused to allow him to air a story on Nat Turner and challenged his characterization of Harriet Tubman. Countering criticisms about her portrayal, in the same letter Durham wrote:

To present Tubman as a sort of refined version of Aunt Jemima would be criminal. To present her as a sort of religious fanatic would be far-fetched. To present her as so many Negro women are—dauntless, determined, who have a healthy contempt for people who live by racial prejudice and who are quick to recognize and extend a warm hand to other humans, would be an honest, but for radio, a radical approach.

Durham realized early on that he would have to fight for an “honest” portrayal of his subjects, especially those that were women. The few portrayals of enslaved women in media during that era were flat, one-dimensional characters. Gone with the Wind, a decade earlier, portrayed enslaved women as both indolent and useless as Prissy was, or sassy, overly affectionate, and protective of their white mistresses as Mammy was. Disrupting this narrative was indeed, as Durham surmised, a radical approach.

Durham’s inclusion of radical female subjects was noteworthy. The series profiled several prominent African American women leaders such as Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Harriet Tubman. In the Harriet Tubman episode titled, “Railroad to Freedom,” which aired on July 4, 1948, Durham again relied on a Negro spiritual, this time it was “Go Down, Moses,” as the opening music while simultaneously signaling Harriet Tubman’s nickname, the “Black Moses.” From the earliest words of dialogue, Tubman’s militant vision and rebellious nature were evident in the episode. It relayed how she was hit in the head with an iron bar after stepping in between her master and an enslaved man he was attempting to whip. After recovering from her wounds, she told her mother that she dreamt of Nat Turner and that he told her to “lead an army across the river.” Later in the episode, Tubman boldly recounted a prayer to God in which she told Him, “if you can’t change the masters, kill them.”

Though Durham worked to publicize the fantastic feats of Black Americans and counter the stereotypes on popular radio, he ultimately subverted the original intentions of Destination Freedom, using it to indict the very nation and democratic principles the series purported to extol. In a prescient letter to his friend Langston Hughes in 1949, the year before the show ended, Durham lamented the radio station’s accusation that he “must be red” because of the frequency in which his scripts adhered to the virtues of a militant struggle for freedom. He claimed that his inclusion of more neutral characters was a way of appeasing the censorship of his work. Yet Durham was ahead of his time in many respects. Durham saw these desires as not counter to, but congruent with, the fundamental aspects of US democracy. He demonstrated this idea in his stories of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. And, just as his work on Harriet Tubman alluded to the failed promise of the American Revolution, his episode on Denmark Vesey, also included the words of the founding fathers. In Vesey’s closing monologue, he says:

They wanted their revolution to make men free and equal. They stopped with some men free and some men slaves. I took up where they left off. I found my price when I was a slave—I paid it. If my life is the price I pay to be free—take it. I’ll pay it. Until all men are free, the revolution goes on!

It is ironic but telling that when the station canceled Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom, it attempted to continue the series under the same name replacing Black heroes and heroines with traditional white patriots. To use the history of resistance to slavery as a means to raise the very questions the US avoided in its post-World War II propaganda wars was a political choice which pointed to Durham’s insistence on a rewriting of how slavery and enslaved persons fit into American history and memory. While the station seemed pleased with Black history programming that fit into current positive racial propaganda, the presence of radical narratives about Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, or Frederick Douglass complicated the patriotic tales of Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, and others. The consistent revolutionary spirit of Black Americans, many of whom were formerly enslaved, challenged the revolutionary memory of the nation. While the adherents to “Lost Cause” and faithful slave mythology spread their narratives into the academy and popular culture, African American creatives such as Richard Durham countered with their entries. Through Destination Freedom the stories of slave resistance, agency, and humanity—both large-scale and commonplace—found an audience; and Black history, found a powerful voice.

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Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History department at Rutgers University. Her research interests include 19th and 20th Century U.S. history, African American history, African American Civil War memory, and the legacy of the Lost Cause. Her dissertation project, “Confronting the Rebel Yell: How African Americans Created and Contested Civil War Memory, 1865-1965,” examines how African American Civil War memory evolved in the century after the war's end. Follow her on Twitter @AshleighWrites.

Comments on “History, Memory, and the Power of Black Radio

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    This is an excellent essay on Durham’s importance in presenting an empowering black history to the American public in the immediate post-WWII era, as well as a thoughtful reminder of the ways in which African Americans used mass media to assert their presence in America culture. It also suggests the uphill battle mid-century writers faced in an era when blacks were excluded from mainstream narratives and “mammies” and “sambos” still comprised the primary black appearances in popular culture.

    It is important, however, to recognize that Durham often played fast and loose with historical accuracy in delivering his message of black agency. In my recent book, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (Oxford 2017) I briefly address Durham’s (and many others’) distortion of Attucks, his ostensible role in the Boston Massacre, his political motivations, his character, and his significance for the revolutionary generation.

    Perhaps such liberties can be justified by the need to make a dent in the (still) persistent narratives of black incompetence, irrelevance, and marginality. But I would argue that presenting historical distortions in order to challenge other historical distortions does not really advance the cause of re-educating the American public about the centrality of African-descended people in the nation’s history and culture. We need to think critically about the ways in which writers and public spokespersons–then and now–construct the past to suit their own agendas, however vital and well-meaning those agendas may be.

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    Thank you for this fine article about the importance of the Destination Freedom radio series, and its creator and sole scriptwriter Richard Durham. Durham is the subject of my biography, Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom (University of Illinois, 2015), and I appreciate the fact that you included a reference link to my book in your first sentence.

    As your article states, Durham was a writer who used radio to creatively document the militant liberation struggles of notable enslaved Africans in America. I would also point out that Durham’s weekly Destination Freedom shows dramatized the lives, accomplishments, and in Durham’s opinion, the pioneering and often revolutionary spirit of figures who were his contemporaries during the late 1940s and early 1950s -including baseball great Jackie Robinson, artist Lena Horne, writer Langston Hughes, and Jane Bolin, the first African American woman judge in New York City.

    Readers may hear recordings of the original Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, and Denmark Vesey dramas, as well as 39 of the more than 90 programs in Durham’s still engaging Destination Freedom series by visiting the archive.org website. Even more programs and memorabilia from the series are available in the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, and in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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    I’ve been digging into the portrayal of journalists in the golden age of radio, and had missed Dunham and this wonderful series. It will be fascinating to compare with other radio “true life story” series, especially in the rare cases where they broadcast biographies of the same individuals, such as Frederick Douglass.

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    I have compiled a total of 61 surviving episodes of the original Durham series. There are also a number of the later “Patriotic Series” as well that are not included. This website gives details on 57 of the surviving episodes. http://www.radiogoldindex.com/frame1.html

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