Moss was suspicious of radio by the time of that interview (early 1950s), seeing it both as a path to financial success for African-Americans and a tool by which white America could perpetuate racial inequality. Surely his experience with Folks From Dixie, a show he was pressured by the network to write as a comedy despite more personal interest in serious themes, reinforced this view of radio
For Moss, radio was never purely about money, though a certain level of compensation was certainly necessary for him to continue in the field. In the bigger picture he viewed radio as a potential avenue for black empowerment that was being blocked by the white-owned and operated networks. He insisted that radio would not change on its own; what was needed was nothing less than government intervention in the form of the Fair Employment Practice Commission forcing open these opportunities. “If given a chance, this Negro could make a great contribution to that field” he emphatically insisted. As with so many industries and career fields, “lack of opportunity is the problem.”
One second-hand account of Moss during his radio years survives in the work of John Houseman, with whom Moss worked at the WPA’s Negro Theater Unit in the 1930s. Looking back on that job years later, Houseman wrote briefly about Moss and provided a bit of further insight into his persona: “When [Moss] came to work for the WPA at the age of twenty-five, he was already a bitter and skeptical man. But behind his smiling pose of self-protective sarcasm lay a deep and sympathetic understanding of the inner workings of the Negro world.”
What little information concerning Moss’ radio work which has survived points to a commitment to using his writing to empower and uplift African-Americans, though not in any idealized manner. His stage work, both with community groups and with the WPA during the same time lends further support to asserting that his emphasis on racial awareness and empowerment did not only develop later in life during his film career. In the mid-30s Moss took a position with the Negro Theater Unit of the Federal Theater sometime in 1935, a program intended to put unemployed writers to work. There he worked under the aforementioned Houseman, a white man who was chosen to co-lead the Unit with accomplished African-American actress Rose McClendon (featured frequently in Moss’ radio productions). McClendon passed away soon after the creation of the jobs program and Moss was one of three African-Americans that took charge of the Negro Theater Project when Houseman later left to work on a more classical theater project.
Later, Moss worked with the Negro unit of the New York Project of the Federal Writers Project (FWP). His exact role is unclear but Jerre Mangione, national coordinating editor of the Project, points out that Moss’ name was included on a list of editors found among FWP documents that were eventually published as The Negro in New York (1967). Also on the list were such luminaries as Ralph Ellison and Claude McKay. Other stage work during his years in New York included original scripts for plays including “Sacrifice” and an untitled work about black history. Further projects brought him in contact with black artists outside the writers’ circles including Aaron Douglas, for whom Moss wrote a play to celebrate the unveiling of the painter’s work at Harlem’s West 135th St. branch library, as well as William Grant Steel, for whom he wrote the libretto for the opera Blue Steel.
The company Moss kept during his years in New York also lends credence to an assumption that his radio work was just as concerned with black pride and empowerment as was his theater and film work. Beyond the figures mentioned above, Moss recounted his days in Harlem and interactions with such luminaries as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes in regards to film-maker Oscar Micheaux. According to Odette Harper Hines, Moss very close with Ralph Ellison in the mid-30s due to their collaboration on the Federal Writers Project. Recognizing the significance of the artists with whom he mingled in the 30s, by the mid-40s Moss was lecturing publicly on Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Zora Neal Hurston, Hughes, Johnson, Phyllis Wheatley, and Richard Wright.
Despite his pioneering work in radio, Carlton Moss’ influence on radio appears to have been minimal in the long run. While he opened the door to black opportunity on the air, few seemed to take advantage of his inroads. The performers in his unofficial acting troupe who were featured on so many of his network broadcasts did not go on to any notable radio careers. Outside of the musical success of the Southernaires, none of the performers even went on to appear in any mainstream network programming on a regular basis. Interestingly, Edna Thomas, Richard Huey, and Frank Wilson appeared on an episode of Cavalcade of America (December 25, 1940) sponsored by the DuPont company on NBC’s Red network. The broadcast was an adaption of Marc Connelly’s play “The Green Pastures,” focusing on black Southern Christianity.
None of the small numbers of African-Americans who did find notable success in radio later in the ‘30s and through the ‘40s and ‘50s, including Eddie Anderson (Rochester on The Jack Benny Program), Lillian Randolph (Birdie on The Great Gildersleeve), Hattie McDaniel (Beulah), and Wonderful Smith (Red Skelton Show), have left any indication that Moss, his programs, or his cadre of pioneering black performers influenced their careers.
If any later radio work can be attributed to Moss’ influence, the best candidates would be the broadcasts based on Roi Ottley’s 1943 book A New World A Comin’. In the late 1940s his book was adapted to radio and became one of the most prominent black series during the heyday of radio drama. As noted above, Ottley covered Moss’ radio work while on staff for the Amsterdam News during the early ’30s, then later worked with him on the Federal Writers Project. Ottley’s reviews of Moss’ work were generally positive and it is reasonable to surmise that these works had some influence on Ottley when he set about turning his book into aural productions.
In retrospect, Moss’ work should be viewed both within the longer thread of black radio that flowered briefly in the late 20s and later bloomed in the 40s and as a unique broadcasting contribution that stands without peer in the annals of black radio. There can be little question that Floyd Calvin, Jack Cooper, and the unknown staff at WABC paved the way for black programming on radio through their efforts at the end of the 1920s. At the same time, the scope of Moss’ work in content and audience reception is incomparable. No other African-American was writing drama, or even comedy beyond short sketches, for black audiences using black performers. Further, no other African-American beyond the most popular jazz performers were getting airtime on NBC’s nationwide network, the premier radio vehicle of the era. In this respect the efforts of Carlton Moss to bring black art to radio were wildly successful; that more African-American programs were not aired in the wake of his efforts is to the discredit of the radio networks. That the historic contributions Moss made to black performing arts – notably radio – have been entirely overlooked for three-quarters of a century is to the discredit of a wider society often little interested in the contributions of is African-American members.