Nostalgia: Destination Freedom radio program
Confronted by so many DVDs at a recent nostalgia convention, my friend Rebecca began looking for some Amos ‘n Andy recordings. She collects African American memorabilia, and a collection is not complete without a few of those characters and their buffoonery.
I’m not into Amos ‘n Andy (neither the white or black versions), but I understand that it is part of American history and if you’re a collector you collect the good with the not-so-good. She and I were surrounded by table after table of old movie and TV DVDS at the end of a road trip we had taken late last week to check out this nostalgia confab. We didn’t expect to find many African-American-related items, but we figured we might come across something else that was intriguing.
As we stood there among the tables on a top floor, she did not spot a single Amos ‘n Andy. One vendor – noting her penchant for black–related recordings – mentioned a radio show with a name that neither of us had heard of before: “Destination Freedom.”
I instantly perked up because the title sounded adventurous. It was a radio show, he said, from the 1940s about the accomplishments of African Americans. He didn’t bring any copies with him – they were back home – but he gave Rebecca his card, on which she wrote down the name. It was etched in my brain, and I couldn’t wait to find out all I could about the program.
“Destination Freedom” was conceived, researched and written by Richard Durham, dramatized by a diverse group of actors and narrators, and aired on Sunday mornings on WMAQ in Chicago from 1948 to 1950. Unfortunately, it was a local/regional show that didn’t extend beyond the Midwest.
The show was both groundbreaking and crusading, and came at a time when the American culture and radio itself were presenting African Americans as stereotypes – hence Amos ‘n Andy, Beulah and Aunt Jemima. Durham’s shows not only offered dramatizations of the historical lives of African Americans, but shed light on civil rights, race relations and other issues aimed toward freedom.
During interviews at the time, here’s what he said about the shows:
“The real-life story of a single Negro in Alabama walking into a voting booth across a Ku Klux Klan line has more drama and world implications than all the stereotypes Hollywood or radio can turn out in a thousand years.”
Durham wrote nearly 100 scripts (91, 97 or 105, depending on who you read) over the two years, researching them meticulously at his local public library (with his wife Clarice reading, editing and typing some of them). The first – which aired on June 27, 1948, and was titled “Knock Kneed Man” – told the story of Crispus Attucks, a hero of the American Revolution. It was followed by a dramatization of the life of Harriet Tubman as leader of the Underground Railroad.
Others presented in the half-hour programs included heart surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Jackie Robinson, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, writer Langston Hughes, activist Ida B. Wells, singer and actor Bill Bojangles Robinson and Duke Ellington.
Some of the narrators and actors were well-known names then and now: broadcast personality Hugh Downs, musician and songwriter Oscar Brown Jr., actor Fred Pinkard, writer Studs Terkel and journalist Vernon Jarrett. The shows apparently began with a singer intoning “Oh freedom, oh freedom,” along with a narrator noting that the program dramatized “the great democratic heritage of the Negro people, part of the pageant of American history.” The program was backed by the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper where Durham was an editor, and then by the local Urban League.
The radio station ended the show in 1950, replacing it with a patriotic program using a Paul Revere character as its narrator.
“Destination Freedom” was not Durham’s first radio program. Two years earlier, he had teamed with the CBS affiliate WBBM for a program called “Democracy USA.” A year later, he wrote a black soap opera called “Here Comes Tomorrow” that aired on station WJJD.
A native of Mississippi, Durham moved with his family to Chicago when he was a child. While at Northwestern University, he participated in the Depression-era Works Projects Administration’s Federal Writers Project, training as a radio scriptwriter.
He became friends with Langston Hughes, who encouraged him in his poetry, according to an essay by Patrick Naick in the 2011 book “Writers of the Black Chicago Renaissance,” edited by Steven C. Tracy. Durham also wrote scripts for the Art Institute of Chicago that aired on local radio. His 40-year writing career included stints as editor of the Muhammed Speaks newspaper (1960s), creator of the television series “Bird of the Iron Feather (1970)” and co-writer of Muhammad Ali’s autobiography “The Greatest (1975).”
During the 1950s, he worked as the national program director for a packing house, writing a pamphlet on the union’s anti-discrimination efforts. He left after futilely trying to get the union to support black workers who wanted to move into higher positions.
Durham died in 1984 at his home in Chicago. He was inducted in 2007 in the National Radio Hall of Fame.