Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A New World A-Coming

Vincent Lushington "Roi" Ottley attended St Bonaventure University for two years, beginning in 1926 and transferred to the University of Michigan in 1928 to study Journalism. He stayed on there for a year and dropped out to return to New York where he attended Columbia and St. John's University for a law degree. It may seem like he lacked direction, but there was more going on than that. He grew up in Harlem, and only got into college on a track scholarship. In 4 years he went through four schools and at least 3 majors without completing any.  But all along he'd been writing. He wrote for school newspapers and their literary magazines. When he returned to New York he started writing for the Amsterdam News. In 1943 he published he first book A New World A-Coming, and won a Peabody Award. He went on to publish five more books. So how does this relate to radio?

 That gifted writer and later became a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and later a war correspondent in WWII. While overseas, he wrote for Liberty Magazine, PM and the Pittsburgh Courier; he made a bit of a name for himself. There were very few black reporters overseas. Some sources say he was the first. More here.  But it was that first book, A New World A-Coming inspired an eponymous radio program on WMCA-AM.  Some sources say that Ottley produced it, others that WMCA produced it. It's opening credits state that it was produced by WMCA and the "The City-wide Citizen's Committee on Harlem." It's most likely that both had creative input. But it was definitely narrated by Canada Lee (Ottley did narrate a few episodes) and it's theme song was written by Duke Ellington. The program was about black Americans, and showcased black literature, poetry and was at the same time vigorously patriotic. They plugged war bonds too. The 30 minute program aired on Sunday afternoons and the series was continued on into 1957. (Once source claims it ran into 1966) You can hear a few episodes here.

It featured accounts of African-American social life in 1940s Harlem and serving in the military during WWII. That gets back to that City-wide Citizen's Committee on Harlem. that group was founded by reverend John Johnson, Walter Francis White and Algernon Black in 1935. They were involved with the NAACP and the Urban League. It's wroth noting that by this time, the Urban League had already been producing radio programs such as "Minority Opinion," "Americans All," "Immigrants all," and "Freedom's People."

Collectively all these groups were trying to improve race relations, but they were also civil rights activists. In the late 1930s there had been a series off riots set off by police violence against blacks. To his credit, mayor Laguardia did not order a crack down. He reached out to the Citizen's Committee on Harlem. At this time Roi Ottley was reporting on these issues at the Amsterdam News. By the time he won that Peabody award, he was a big name in their community. In 1944 he became the director of the Negro Unit of the New York Federal Writers Project. These writings became fodder for his radio program. More here.

That's all very impressive but the leap to radio is the twist in the story. Nathan Straus bought  WMCA in 1943 from Ed Noble, and became it's chairman of the board. Straus was the former head of the United States Housing Authority and Noble was trying to buy the NBC Blue Network and trying to ingratiate himself to the FCC. But even from the get-go it was expected that Straus was doing something different. The Billboard article describing the purchase was titled "Noble Buy Of WMCA From Noble Points Up Entry Of Public-Minded Into Field."  He shared the board with H. M. Stein, the president of Davega-City Radio. The book Broadcasting Freedom by Barbara D. Savage described Straus as "a New Dealer with progressive views on race..."  No surprise then that it was Straus who bought the rights to A New World A-Coming from Ottley to create the program. It wasn't his only black oriented program by far.. but for every program there's a story to tell.