Meet Professor Sonja Williams, biographer of pioneering radio journalist ‘word warrior’ Richard Durham, Saturday in Oakland
by Wanda Sabir
Though pioneering journalist Richard Durham (1917-1984) made Chicago his home, Professor Sonja D. Williams’s “Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom” (2015) offers a portrait of a man who was not contained by geography – spatial or otherwise. Williams will be in town this weekend to share the Durham story at the African American Museum and Library, 659 14th St., Oakland, Saturday, March 11, 2-4 p.m.
The story of how Williams, winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards as a radio producer and professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Howard University, is about as amazing as the product on the other side of the 14 years it took to get from idea to University of Illinois Press.
In a recent interview, the author says she hadn’t known Durham’s work until the mid-1990s when she had a chance to work for the Smithsonian Institute in the National Museum of American History. At that time, they had a documentary unit for television and radio that looked at various aspects of American history.
Williams will be in town this weekend to share the Durham story at the African American Museum and Library, 659 14th St., Oakland, Saturday, March 11, 2-4 p.m.
“Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was” was a series Jacquie Gales Webb created that looked at Blacks in radio from its earliest days into the 1990s. One of three producers, Williams says she was responsible for writing and producing a show about the Golden Age of Radio, that is, radio during the 1930s and ‘40s.
Williams talked to some of her colleagues at Howard University, and one person mentioned the series “Destination Freedom,” which aired in 1948, written by Richard Durham, whom she had never heard of nor the series up to that point, she said.
While radio was the more popular medium in the 1930s and 1940s, it was also a segregated medium; that is, “you barely heard Black voices on the air. If you heard them, they were stereotypes: Amos and Andy, Beulah, maids, butlers, comic relief and negative depictions of Black life and culture,” Williams said.
Richard Durham’s tenure in radio was unique – he was one of the few men, Black men, writing for the media. Black people were rarely featured in local or national dramatic broadcasts then.
So for Black people listening to radio, to have a program describing ancestors who resisted and fought injustices was inspiring. The popular series, which aired 1948-1950, featured the stories of Harriett Tubman, Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Sojourner Truth, Matthew Henson, Charles Caldwell, James Weldon Johnson and others. These African American heroes, men and women of all backgrounds and disciplines, had made significant contributions not just to Black people but to the nation.
Richard Durham’s tenure in radio was unique – he was one of the few men, Black men, writing for the media.
Williams found the work amazing. Her initial “trepidation about [her assignment to explore] African American contributions during radio’s ‘theatre of the mind’ heyday of the 1930s and 1940s [vanished] as she listened and was “struck by [Durham’s] series’ lyricism, dramatic flair and fiery rhetoric” (xvii). The more research she did, “it was ‘oh yeah,’ he needs to be more widely known.”
Durham didn’t make it into the National Museum of African American History and Culture; however, Professor Williams’s book made it into the gift shop. He was inaugurated into the National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago, his hometown, where there is also a permanent exhibition, while the Chicago Public Library, which includes the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, hosts his extensive archives. This was a gift of his widow, Mrs. Clarice Davis Durham, 98, who still lives in Chicago with their son, Mark, also a writer and musician.
Mentored by Langston Hughes and Chicago Defender editor-in-chief Haitian scholar Metz T. Lochard, Durham used media as an organizing tool (54). A Depression era baby, Durham learned radio as a part of the WPA’s Illinois Writers’ Project where the rookie journalist, also a published poet and writer, “rubbed shoulders with published authors such as Arna Bontemps, Nelson Algren and Jack Conroy.
He also joined the ranks of up-and-coming writers like future Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow and future Pulitzer Prize honoree Louis “Studs” Terkel (38). Under Bontemps, Durham authored his first IWP chapter for the Negro Press in Chicago study: “Don’t Spend Money Where You Can’t Work” (39).
Later in his career Durham worked as editor for Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper for the Nation of Islam. There he met and became friends with Muhammad Ali, whose book, “The Greatest,” he co-wrote. The book was edited by Toni Morrison, who like others has fond memories of both Durham and the Champ.
The Harold Washington defeat of the entrenched Richard M. Daley machine in 1983 was in part due to the work of “Dick” Durham; however, Durham’s work took him outside Chicago too. News clippings find Durham in San Francisco, where he and W.E.B. Dubois covered the All Nations Conference in 1945. “Durham’s articles,” Williams states, “reflected the political posturing, turmoil and progress that eventually led to the U.N.’s birth” (58).
The word warrior, Williams states, was “a practical optimist who analyzed the dilemmas of the day, searched for a way to bring positive social change, and inspired others to do the same. Throughout his life, Richard Durham remained a dedicated warrior who used his wordsmith skills like a weapon.” It was a conscious choice (181).
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at email@example.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.