Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 3

The first black Kansan to entertain regularly over the air may have been George Hamilton, Jr., a native of Topeka. Hamilton was a 1922 graduate of the University of Kansas’ law program and reported to be the first university debate team’s first African-American member. After finishing at KU Hamilton worked for the university’s extension department. His travels took him to Minnesota’s Twin Cities where he and his wife settled; Hamilton eventually found his way on to radio. In 1925 was broadcasting a children’s program every day at 5:30 over WCCO, a St. Paul station. The name of the show has not been preserved but its content included a variety of entertainment such as jokes, riddles, songs, and stories, fare typical of the era’s broadcasts.5

Two musical performers with Kansas roots, Orlando Roberson and Eva Jessye, emerged on radio in 1927. The lesser known of the pair, Orlando Roberson, was a graduate of the University of Kansas reported writer Ralph Matthews in a 1932 issue of The Baltimore Afro-American. It’s possible Roberson was born in Kansas; Matthews cites Kansas City as his birthplace but the Grove Music online database claims Roberson was from Tulsa, OK. Regardless, Matthews states that Roberson studied medicine at KU but didn’t finish his studies, instead ending up in show business. Earl Morris of The Pittsburgh Courier confirmed this KU connection in a 1937 column.6

Roberson debuted on an unknown Kansas City station in 1927, just one year after the formation of NBC. During this time many African-American jazz musicians were beginning to find radio opportunities. Roberson eventually made his way to Chicago where he sang with Sammy Stewart’s Orchestra. His most notable radio work came as a singer with Claude Hopkins’ during the 1930s. The group was a regular on New York-area radio by 1932 and in 1934 was still being featured on the program Harlem Serenade alongside Fats Waller on station WABC.7

Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 2

Nine years later the Kansas Industrial and Educational Institute in Topeka was recognized for its early radio efforts. The earliest radio stations 1919 and 1920 though the first commercial radio station is widely recognized to be Pittsburgh’s KDKA. There was a virtual explosion in the number of radio stations in the first years of the 1920s. Some, like KDKA, were founded by profit-minded enterprises while others were founded by churches, schools, and civic organizations. It’s not clear if other African-American educational institutions were broadcasting by 1922 but the Kansas Industrial and Educational Institute was on the air that year due to the efforts of Professor M. W. Freeman. Unfortunately, the station’s call letters are unknown as is further information about their broadcasts.3

A handful of other pioneering broadcasts by black Kansans have been uncovered. In August, 1922, the Reverend S. A. Williams of Salina’s St. John Baptist Church was acclaimed as the first black minister in the state to preacher over the radio. Around the same time, some singers from the choirs of St. Paul and Calvary churches broadcast a short concert on WAAP, a short-lived station in Wichita’s College Hill neighborhood. A Mrs. H. T. Geeder helped prepare the August, 1922, event. WAAP was sold in 1925 to John Brinkley, Kansas infamous “goat gland doctor.” Several months later in May, 1923, Kansas City’s Mrs. H. G. Dwiggins broadcast excerpts of a speech she’d given just days before in Washington, D.C. She was noted as being the first African-American to air on “Star Radio,” a likely reference to WDAF owned by the Kansas City Star newspaper. That same year Leavenworth’s Independent Church aired a 90-minute broadcast of classical music from their church on WDAF. Church leaders took a free-will offering after the program and “a neat little sum was realized.” Another notable broadcast occurred in May, 1925, when members of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity at the University of Kansas, performed a program on the school’s station KFKU. The station had first broadcast just six months before, on December 15, 1924, and only started regular broadcasts on January 25, 1925. So while it’s not known if these were the first African-Americans to appear on the the university’s station, it is highly likely. In addition to performances by fraternity members, John Hodge, principal of Sumner High School gave a lecture called “Go to High School and College.” With at least a dozen other stations airing on the same frequency as KFKU at the time it’s difficult to discern how widely heard the fraternity was.4

Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 1

Originally published in The Old Radio Times, January-February 2011.

The history of radio’s development, both as an amateur hobby and then as a major commercial industry, largely excluded African-Americans, though their roles as performers, writers, and producers is gaining more attention. Similarly, the state of Kansas did not play a significant part in the development of radio. The biggest names of the early radio years, men such as Guglielmo Marconi, Lee de Forest, Edwin Armstrong, and David Sarnoff, did not come from Kansas nor was their work in radio ever located in Kansas. New York and Chicago would prove to be the centers of the radio industry during the 1920s and 1930s, with Los Angeles’ supplanting Chicago’s during the 1930s as coast-to-coast network connections were improved. The state does have a small place in the early annals of the medium with the founding of two stations by the U. S. Army Signal Corps at Forts Leavenworth (station FL) and Riley (station FZ) in 1908. Soon after, Wichita amateurs were experimenting with the new technology by 1910. Black Kansans can also claim a spot in early radio broadcasting history. A number of pioneering African-Americans who operated early radio technology and performed on network radio during commercial radio’s Golden Age (approximately 1930 to 1960) called the Sunflower State home.1

The earliest reference to black Kansas radio operators comes from an article in the prominent African-American newspaper The Baltimore Afro-American. In 1913 Sumner High School, Kansas City, KS, was described as the only secondary school in the country which had a program to train black students in radio (then referred to as “wireless”) technology. Sumner High School was founded just eight years before in 1905 as the Manual Training High School. Named after former abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, the high school was considered one of the city’s foremost black high schools for decades. J. M. Marquess was Sumner’s principal from 1908 to 1916 and thus presided over the unveiling of this cutting-edge radio training course. Sumner was briefly closed in 1978 as a result of court-ordered desegregation but subsequently reopened as the integrated Sumner Academy of Arts and Science which continues to operate today as a magnet school.2

Diamond City News

Here’s what I have found on the series Diamond City News. I still can’t tell the extent to which the Texas Rangers played a role on the series. You’ll see a reference for Travels of Mary Ward. That was another KMBC program featuring Caroline Ellis selling items from the Montgomery Wards catalog.

July 1, 1936 (Broadcasting):

Diamond City News Broadcasting 7-1-36

August 5, 1936 (Variety):

Diamond City News Variety 8-5-36

September 1, 1936 (Broadcasting):

Diamond City News Broadcasting 9-1-36

September 26, 1936 (Lawrence Journal-World):

KMBC Will Present Tom Collins In “Diamond City News”

A small town weekly newspaper office will be the locale of a new comedy series, “Diamond City News,” which begins on KMBC Monday, to be heard Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6:30 p.m. Tom Collins will have the principal role as a country editor.

Collins, Sunday editor of the Kansas City Journal-Post is well known in Lawrence as a humorist and public speaker. Last spring he gave the commencement address for Lawrence high school and he was the principal speaker at the annual meeting of the Chamber of Commerce.

October 1, 1936 (Broadcasting):

Diamond City News Broadcasting 10-1-36

October 1, 1936 (Broadcasting):

Diamond City News Broadcasting 10-1-36b

The 1938 Radio Annual

Diamond City News Radio Annual 1938

The 1938 Radio Annual

Diamond City News Radio Annual 1938b

The 1938 Radio Annual

Diamond City News Radio Annual 1938c