Golden Age of Black Radio - Part 4: Gender Equality and Civil Rights

Archives of African American Music and Culture

Black radio was a vital method of communication during the Civil Rights era, with deejays spreading the news of local and national events while advocating for social justice. At the same time, Black women radio personalities advanced the push for gender equality.

Women in Radio
In the 1930s and 1940s, the portrayal of Black women on the radio was epitomized by the stereotyped roles of the domestics “Beulah” and "Aunt Jemima." By the 1950s, more women were given an opportunity to host radio programs. Some were gospel music announcers, but most were relegated to shows about cooking and housekeeping targeted to middle class housewives. By the close of the decade, Black women began breaking down barriers, including deejays such as “Chattie” Hattie Leeper, Novella "Dizzy Lizzy" Smith, and Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg.

Hattie Leeper discusses challenges women faced as deejays

There were mixed emotions there, me being the only female. There were some die-hard men there that thought, "Well, you know females should be home having babies, or in the kitchen cooking. This is not an industry for females."

And they tried to do little things to discourage me, some of them. You know. They'd pull my hair. They would take my bows off. You know, 'cause I was sixteen.

They'd say, "My, God. You know. Get your education, because this is no place for ya."

-- Hattie Leeper, a.k.a. "Chattie Hattie"— a deejay in Charlotte, North Carolina

Gladys Hill, the first "Dizzy Lizzy," in KCOH Houston studio in 1962.

Vivian Benton in Atlanta's WERD studio around 1957.

Natolyn Williams describes Willa Monroe's radio personality

Aunt Willa, Willa Monroe, she had this little high-pitched like - I don't know - like, effected voice. It was phony. It was totally phony. And it was funny. 'Cause she didn't know how crazy it sounded. She used to be like trip me out, because she'd be like one person on the air there was one voice, and then when she'd be at home there was another. 'Cause she'd be sayin', "Honey. Bring me a Coke." At home. On the air, "Ladies, if you want some Coca-Cola, you should go to Montesi's. They're on sale today."

-- Natolyn Williams, daughter of legendary WDIA deejay Nat D. Williams

KYOK Houston deejay Novella Smith (aka "Dizzy Lizzy") standing in front of microphone in 1955.

KYOK Houston personality deejay Katie Timms, a.k.a. "Sister Sue"

Since there hadn't been any women, I was afraid that the woman's reaction might not be positive hearing a woman on the air. But, I was so wrong about that. The women were so supportive. And the sisters were so proud that it gave me courage. And I could talk to them. You know. I could be myself. I didn't have to try to be anything else, because there wasn't anybody else to be like. And that was a big advantage.

-- Vy Higginsen


Pictured at left is Vy Higginsen at WBLS Radio, circa 1970.

Vy Higgensen recalls support from other women when she entered broadcasting

Martha Steinberg quips about women deejays' work ethic

You know I used to say, "In this business, baby. You got to think like a man, act like a lady, and work like a dog." You understand? And it hasn't changed.

-- Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, deejay in Memphis and Detroit

Cathy Hughes urges greater recognition of women in radio

It's fascinating to me that women in this industry still do not get the credit that they deserve. My lack of recognition as the creator of The Quiet Storm is a classic case of sexism in the industry, because even the brothers who know, many of whom worked side-by-side with me at Howard University won't part their lips to say a woman created that show. That was her concept. That bothers me very much. Because women have made some incredible contributions in broadcasting. But our industry is still very much the "old boy" network. And the only thing that has changed is that some of those "old boys" have melanin and look like me now.

-- Cathy Liggins Hughes, media industry entrepreneur who created the "Quiet Storm" show in 1977 while working at Howard University station WHUR.

Jacquie Gales Webb is the longtime host of "Sunday Afternoon Gospel" on Howard University's WHUR. While at Smithsonian Productions, she produced the landmark 13-part radio series, “Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was” (1996), which garnered the George Foster Peabody Award and Columbia University Alfred I Dupont silver baton.

Vy Higginsen became New York City's first female deejay in prime time radio on WBLS-FM, which offered the “Total Black Experience.” Under flamboyant program director Frankie Crocker, WBLS-FM became the top station in the city, pioneering the radio format now known as urban contemporary.


I really enjoyed those early days. And we did - the format was a total Black experience in sound. And we would have different shades of Black, we'd call it. Another shade of Black. Gospel. Another shade of Black. Latin.

And we'd go - and you could never get bored listening to the different varieties of sounds, and rhythms, and beats, and emotions, and moods. And we would clearly set the pace and the mood for the day.

And I took going into peoples' homes very seriously because the power of radio I thought was so great. I mean, how does sitting in this room allow me to come into your bathroom, and your bedroom, and your living room? And it was astonishing, you know, that that existed without seeing it. You know? That power existed. So, all you had to do was turn on that switch and you could tune in to a frequency. And I respected that. You know?

And I wanted to, perhaps, do or say something that might make a difference in somebody's life if they chose to turn the radio on that day. And that was a personal and private goal.

-- Vy Higginsen, WBLS-FM deejay

Vy Higginsen describes the unique power of radio to touch people's lives
Civil Rights Movement
During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Black radio played a central role in spreading news, peace, and political awareness. Stations such as WDIA in Memphis and WERD in Atlanta supported various public service broadcasts, facilitating the flow of information about meetings, marches, and demonstrations.

He [Al Benson] hired an airplane and flew over Mississippi, and dropped things saying "free my people" and all this kind of stuff. I didn't even want to ride a train through Mississippi, let alone fly over it.

-- Jack Gibson


Many Black deejays took a proactive stance against racial segregation as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. In 1956, Chicago deejay Al Benson chartered a plane to drop copies of the U.S. Constitution over Mississippi in an effort to "wake up the citizens" of the state and "remind them that the Supreme Court had ruled against school segregation."

Pictured at left is Al Benson in the studio holding copies of the Constitution in 1956.

Jack Gibson recounts Al Benson's outsized promotional and political activities

Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert recalls criticism from whites after his WDIA broadcast on social justice issues

Being proud of my Blackness, I went into a poem-like thing. And I did it with humility and passion. And I said,

I helped you fell your lumber.
We breastfed your babies.
Cooked your food.
Ruling powers of this nation, won't you give me justice now?

We helped you build your railroads.
We helped you fight your wars.
Ruling powers of this nation, won't you give me justice now?

And it went on and on and on. And as I get into it now, you can see tears gettin' into my eyes because I was really feeling that. I was really feeling it, and after it was over, white people called the station and complained. And they complained so badly, that I never did that show again.

-- Maurice "Hot Rod" Hulbert, Baltimore deejay in the 1960s

SCLC had their offices right under the radio station. And Dr. King's office was there. And as Ralph Abernathy, and Andy Young, and all of them. They used to come there all the time. So whenever we wanted to give announcements, we would, you know, they'd even hand it to us. Or, they'd bring it upstairs to the station. Or if Dr. King, or one of his lieutenants wanted to make a speech direct, what they would do is take a broomstick and hit it on the ceiling. And I knew that was the cue.

So, if I was on the air I'd say, "And we pause in this program for a message from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of SCLC."

And as I was saying that, I was letting the microphone out the window so that he could put his hand out the window on the first floor and bring the microphone in, make the speech, and the cue was, "Thank you, and we'll see you tonight at Ebenezer Baptist Church," or wherever.

And I would say, "And we have just heard another message from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of SCLC And now on with our programming."

And then I'd bust loose with saying, "Look out, mama! Here we come with some more of this good, funky music." And then I'd go into my regular act.

-- Jack Gibson, deejay at Atlanta station WERD in the 1950s


Pictured at left is the building that housed both WERD Atlanta and the SCLC offices.

Jack Gibson describes the relationship between radio station WERD and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office that shared the building

We had a convention of disc jockeys in Atlanta in 1967. And he [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] was our keynote speaker. And he mentioned that the Black broadcaster in this speech was responsible for the Civil Rights Movement. And if it had not been for the prominence of Black personality disc jockeys at different places throughout the South, that the Movement never would have gotten started.

You gotta understand that we were the voice that the people listened to. And if you gave us a message to say, "There will be a meeting tonight of SCLC at say, First Baptist Church." Well then, if you gave that, and it said that, we would just go ahead and elaborate all around it. And do our own thing by saying, "Now look. You've heard me mention it to you before that we're gonna have a meetin' tonight at seven o'clock at the First Baptist Church over there on Hunter Road. Now you know, I know how you all are. You have a time called CP. And you know what I mean when I say CP. So now let's - the Reverend King says we gonna meet at seven o'clock. Don't be come showin' up at no seven thirty and eight o'clock, and all stuff like that. Come on at seven o'clock and be there 'cause this is an importance for me, and you, and for our children. Y'all understand me?"

And that would be one of the ways that we'd be able to personalize the message that was given to us to give to our audience.

-- Jack Gibson, deejay at Atlanta station WERD in the 1950s


Pictured at left is a sign outside the SCLC office in Atlanta that shared the building with radio station WERD.

Jack Gibson remembers Martin Luther King, Jr.'s recognition of Black Radio's crucial role in the Civil Rights movement

And there would have never been a March on Washington if there hadn't have been Black radio. Because Black radio was the communicator between the leaders, and the preachers, and whatnot of the communities, to the people who listened to Black radio. They were the ones that told where the preachers were gonna have their meetings, and where everything was gonna come together. So, Black radio played a very heavy role in the Civil Rights Movement. And so I would consider that to be the top, number one thing that Black radio did in the last thirty or forty years, was the thing that caused the civil rights program to happen.

-- deejay "Jockey" Jack Gibson


Pictured at left is a KYOK Houston van in front of civil rights marchers in 1967.

Jack Gibson remembers the importance of Black radio in organizing the march on Washington, D.C. and other Civil Rights movement events

If it were not for Black radio, I imagine more cities in the United States would have been burnt to the ground. But, Black radio was involved and was able to communicate with the listeners. And tell the listeners, "Don't go into certain areas because that's where the fire's the heaviest, or they're shooting more, or creating more damage."

And so Black radio led the fight in the riots by suppressing them. And there was a lot of times - I remember James Brown coming in some cities and by his voice on the air, quelled some of the rioting.

-- deejay "Jockey" Jack Gibson


Pictured at left is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade in Atlanta, Georgia (1980s).

Jack Gibson recalls the way Black radio helped quell the riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This exhibit compliments the landmark 13-part radio series "Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was" (1996).

The series, produced by Jacquie Gales Webb for Smithsonian Productions and hosted by Lou Rawls, garnered the George Foster Peabody Award and Columbia University Alfred I Dupont silver baton.

For more information about the series, or Black radio in general, please contact The Archives of African American Music and Culture. The AAAMC holds the interviews and production materials related to the "Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was" radio series, along with other archival collections related to Black radio.


Archives of African American Music and Culture
Indiana University
2805 E. 10th, Suite 180
Bloomington, IN 47408
(812) 855-8547

Credits: Story

Produced by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.

Curators: Brenda Nelson-Strauss, William R. Vanden Dries

Editor: Dr. Mellonee V. Burnim, Director, Archives of African American Music and Culture

Assistants: Matthew Alley, Douglas Dowling Peach, Allison Bohm

Audio interviews (1995) from the collection “Black Radio: Telling It Like it Was,” a radio series produced by Jacquie Gales Webb for Smithsonian Productions; Sonja Williams and Alexis Gillespie, Associate Producers; Matt Sakakeeny, John Paulson and John Tyler, editors; Wesley Horner, Executive Producer; courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Video interview (1981) from the Portia K. Maultsby Collection.

Images from the Jack Gibson, Johnny Otis, Katherine Lewis, Ed Castleberry, Rick Roberts, George Nelson, Travis Gardner, Doug "Jocko" Henderson, and William Barlow collections at the AAAMC. Additional images provided by Clarice Durham, Sonja Williams, Jacquie Gales Webb, Vy Higginsen, and Tim Fabrizio.

Audio and video content digitized courtesy of the Indiana University Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative.

Archives of African American Music and Culture
Indiana University
2805 E. 10th, Suite 180
Bloomington, IN 47408
(812) 855-8547

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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