Though pioneering journalist Richard Durham (1917-1984) made Chicago his home, the subject of Professor Sonja D. Williams’s “Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom” offers a portrait of a man who was not contained by geography.
In a recent interview, author Williams said she hadn’t known Durham’s work until the mid-90s when she had a chance to work for the Smithsonian Institute in the National Museum of American History.
At that time, they had a documentary unit for television and radio that looked at various aspects of American history. “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was” was a series Jacquie Gales Webb created which looked at Black people in radio from its earliest days into the 1990s.
While radio was the more popular medium in the 1930s and 1940s, it was also a segregated medium where “you barely heard Black voices on the air. If you heard them, they were stereotypes: Amos and Andy, Beulah, maids, butlers, comic relief and negative depictions of black life and culture,” Williams said.
Richard Durham’s tenure in radio was unique—he was one of the few Black men writing for the media. Black people were rarely featured in local or national dramatic broadcasts then.
The popular series, which aired 1948-1950, featured the stories of Harriett Tubman, Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Sojourner Truth, Matthew Henson, Charles Caldwell, James Weldon Johnson and others.
Williams found the work amazing. Her initial “trepidation about [her assignment to explore] African American contributions during radio’s ‘theatre of the mind’ heyday of the 1930s and 1940s [vanished]” as she listened and was “struck by [Durham’s] series’ lyricism, dramatic flair and fiery rhetoric.”
Durham was inaugurated into the National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago, his hometown, where there is also a permanent exhibition, while the Chicago Public Library holds his extensive archives.