Friday, June 27, 2014

Freedom Theater on WSM

 I've noted before that integration was slow coming in broadcasting. It's interesting that one of the earliest integrated programs was a theater program in Nashville, TN. The book Don't Touch That Dial by J. Fred MacDonald makes a single reference to an integrated radio theater program.
"More indicative of postwar attitudes toward blacks in radio was a special series, Freedom Theater, produced in 1948 at WSM (Nashville). In this thirteen-part public service show, music was provided by a traditional country-western ensemble, Roy Acuff and His Smokey Mountain Boys, as well as by a black chorus, the Fisk University Choir. The series represented the first time racially-mixed programs had been broadcast from the same studio of that important southern station."
In 1948 WSM-AM aired one of the first racially mixed radio programs in the South. There were undoubtedly minor roles on more minor stations, but this was WSM-AM, the home of the Grand old Opry. It's highly unusual and surprisingly forward-thinking for the era.  There were already integrated theater programs in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and New York at the time.. some possibly as early as 1945. But in the USA the legal foundation to end segregation didn't start until the mid 1950s. Brown v. Board of Education wasn't ruled on until 1954. Interracial marriage was still illegal in some states until 1967. The Fair Housing act wasn't signed until 1968! More here.

But lets get back to the program. The Fisk University Choir was established in 1879 by Adam K. Spence, who was also the first principal of the Fisk School.  The group was assembled to back up the Fisk Jubilee Singers during their heavy touring season. The Jubilee singers were first assembled in 1871 to tour and raise funds for college singing spirituals. That's not hyperbole. While the choir was assembled by the principal, the Jubilee singers were assembled by Fisk's treasurer and music director, George L. White. the important detail here is that despite being local talent, the choir was nationally famous.

While little is written about  Freedom Theater as a series, a single program called "Freedom Train about integration on WSM-AM was praised by Billboard magazine in May of 1948.  I believe this was an episode of Freedom Theater. It has all the known participants, and is an integrated theater program.  Billboard awarded the program "Freedom Train" a third place award among Public Service Programs for the year. While it's not an Obie, it does importantly list some names surely connected to Freedom Theater.

  • Producer-Director: Jack Stapp
  • Assistant Producer-Director: Tom Stewart
  • Writer: Saul Carson
  • Cast: Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, Bradley Kincaid, Snooky Lanson
  • Music: Fisk University Choir, WSM Staff Orchestra

These were not carpet-baggers, anti-segregation protesters, or outsiders of any kind. Though in WWII he did help write propaganda for the OWI (Office of War Information.)  Stapp was born in Atlanta, former PD of WGST-AM. He had been at WSM since1939 and stayed through 1957. Tom Stewart had been there even longer and helped design their studios. Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, Bradley Kincaid, and Snooky Lanson were all Opry regulars. The one thing not described in that short article were black actors. Damn. Thankfully the scrips are archived at Vanderbuilt University.  More here.

*In about 1947, WNYC-AM  also carried a program called Freedom Theater. It is totally unrelated.