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