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

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