Sonja D. Williams – Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom

sonja d williams_word warrior

Title: Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom

Author: Sonja D. Williams

Formats: hardcover (265 pages), softcover, eBook

Publisher: University of Illinois Press; New Black Studies Series

Release date: August 11, 2015


Sonja D. Williams, a professor in Howard University’s Department of Radio, Television, and Film, offers the first full-length biography of Chicago writer Richard Durham, an extremely important figure in the history of radio whose most notable programs included Here Comes Tomorrow and Destination Freedom. Williams’ was first introduced to Durham’s work in the early 1990s while serving as associate producer on the Peabody Award-winning radio documentary, Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was, for Smithsonian Productions. After the conclusion of that project, she was determined to embark on a more thorough study of Durham, whose “dramatic flair and fiery rhetoric” infused his dramas about African American life. Now, after twenty years of research, we are finally gifted with Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom—which explores Durham’s life as well as the totality of his contributions to radio.

Williams is a natural storyteller, weaving an engaging story of Durham’s early life. Born in 1917 in Mississippi where his grandparents were both former slaves, Durham spent his early years on the family farm. His father was one of a few Black landowners, while his mother earned extra income peddling Madame C.J. Walker hair products. Williams provides an interesting account of the history of the Durham family in the south, based on first-hand interviews and quotes from Durham family papers. His parents eventually decided to leave their agricultural life behind to seek better educational and employment opportunities for their family, and thus in 1923 joined the Great Migration to Chicago. At the same time, radio was expanding rapidly in the city. As a young boy, Durham was exposed to programs on WMAQ, WGN, and WLS, including “Amos ‘n’ Andy”—a “blackface” radio comedy that poked fun at southern-born Negroes using minstrel stereotypes. Williams conjectures that the show likely had a major impact on Durham, inspiring him in later years to create more realistic characters who fought for social and economic justice.

Durham’s family purchased a home in Chicago’s Bronzeville, which quite fortuitously was near the neighborhood’s first public library, which opened in 1932 and was headed by Vivian G. Harsh. Now a teenager, Durham exhibited a thirst for knowledge, immersing himself in the library where he studied the works of Charles Dickens, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes—all of whom had a major impact on his writing career. Williams follows Durham’s intellectual awakening, including his exposure to Richard Wright, the South Side Writer’s Group, the Communist Party, and the burgeoning Black Chicago Renaissance. By the time he reached adulthood, Durham had published numerous poems and articles, and through a WPA funded position gained entrée into radio. Williams analyzes some of his early scriptwriting and follows his progress in “finding his dramatic voice—effectively using tension and release, plot twists and humor to capture listener’s attention”—while also tracing the emergence of his socially conscious voice, expressed through his desire to aid Chicago’s struggling black population and expose injustices.

Durham’s break in radio came in 1946 as a writer for the weekly program “Democracy USA,” sponsored by the Chicago Defender, about accomplished Negroes. At that time, he was likely the only African American writer working full-time in radio. Williams goes on to describe the delicate balance Durham faced in producing his trademark provocative scripts yet not going so far as to upset WBBM and CBS management. As a side job, Durham aided the wealthy white soap opera script writer Irna Phillips, which gave him the requisite experience to develop his groundbreaking 1947 series Here Comes Tomorrow, the first radio soap opera with an all-Black cast, starring Jack Gibson and Oscar Brown, Jr. Chronicling a fictional African American family headed by a prosperous physician, Here Comes Tomorrow was the Cosby Show of its day, and also drew comparisons to NBC’s The Goldbergs, about a Jewish family in New York. Since Durham believed “media should serve a higher purpose than mindless diversion,” Here Comes Tomorrow dealt with weighty themes such as racial intolerance, which likely led to its early demise, despite receiving numerous awards and a loyal following.

Durham’s most significant radio series was the critically acclaimed Destination Freedom, a weekly docudrama he both wrote and produced, broadcast over WMAQ Chicago from June 1948-August 1950. Using “eloquent, politically outspoken scripts” and a “multiracial cast and crew,” the series highlighted Black protagonists—from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to James Weldon Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson—who “stood up for their rights while championing equality and justice for their fellow citizens.” Durham’s “lilting, opinionated scripts” allowed him to break through the “thoroughly racist-ridden electronic media of radio and television” in the post-WWII era. But progress is often followed by a step backwards. Ironically, in 1950 WMAQ revived Destination Freedom as a TV show, without Durham’s consent, whitewashing themes and characters to focus on (white) American patriotic heroes. (Williams includes an appendix with a complete radio log of Destination Freedom shows, many of which are available via the Internet Archive).

Throughout the final chapters of the book, Williams details Durham’s many other jobs, including program head of the largely Black union organization UPWA, editor of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, ghostwriter for various television sci-fi shows including The Outer Limits, and as chief writer for WTTW’s groundbreaking 1970 television drama Bird of the Iron Feather, about a Black detective killed in the crossfire between Black rebels and the police during a race riot on Chicago’s West Side (an enthralling story!). Prior to his death in 1984, he had also co-authored Muhammad Ali’s memoir The Greatest: My Own Story, and served as a campaign advisor and speech writer for Chicago mayor Harold Washington.

In Word Warrior, Williams paints a picture of a man way ahead of his time, who persevered against all odds to produced groundbreaking Black-oriented programs for radio and television, and who fought throughout his life against blatant racial discrimination and inequality. This book is essential reading for those interested in media history, African American writers, and the history of Chicago.

Editor’s note: Richard Durham is featured in the AAAMC’s new multi-media exhibit, “The Golden Age of Black Radio,” available online at Google Cultural Institute. The AAAMC also holds the production files and interviews for the radio documentary Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss