Pioneers of the Air: African-American Kansans on Early Radio, Pt. 4

Eva Jessye, perhaps Kansas’ most famous African-American radio figure, was born in Coffeyville, KS, in 1895 and is best known as a leader of various spiritual-singing choirs. Her main radio years were from 1927 to 1934, a transitional period during which the radio broadcasting industry transitioned from a primitive, anything-goes entertainment medium in the 1920s to a sophisticated, network driven business which reaped massive profits during a time of general economic collapse in the 1930s.

Jessye’s earliest known radio appearance came with the Dixie Jubilee Singers on October 29, 1925, over a sixteen-station hook-up originating from New York’s WEAF. They performed “John Saw the Holy Number,” “Stand Steady, Brethren,” “Negro Love Song,” “All Over the World,” and “Down Yonder in Virginia.” While many entertainers performed for free at this time, the Dixie Jubilee Singers received $160 for this concert. They sang again on WEAF two days later, on October 31, and then on New York’s WJZ on November 1. They were reported to be under contract to WEAF at the time indicating Jessye’s group were regularly on the air.

The Dixie Jubilee Singers sang “spirituals, jubilees and plantation melodies” on March 13, 1927, still over WEAF which had by this time become a part of the fledgling National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network. The evening’s program included “Time to Stop Idlin’,” “Lucy Anna,” “Santa Anna,” “Watchman, How Long?,” “Kru Evening Song,” “Spirit O’ the Lord Done Fell on Me,” and “I Stand and Fold My Arms.” One month later, on April 10, the Singers were guests on Major Bowes’ Capitol Family broadcast. The choir is known to have made further broadcasts during 1927 and 1928.9

In 1929 the choir received its own series, a weekly program called Aunt Mandy’s Children on New York station WOR. In a change from prior radio work Jessye incorporated dramatic sketches into the broadcasts. One of these productions included a story about Oklahomans of African-American and Native-American ancestry. Other sketches were set in Virginia and Texas. According to Jessye the stories were intended to “raise the status of the Negro in the minds of those who listen in from all parts of the world.” Four Dusty Travelers, a quartet directed by Jessye, received a weekly time slot on WOR for several weeks in 1930 and her entire choir continued on Aunt Mandy’s Children concurrently.10