Radio Show Chronicled Blacks' Harsh Realities Seventy years ago this winter, a national radio audience began hearing about the harsh realities of a segregated South. The struggles of African-Americans were featured in sermons, lectures and songs on the show Wings Over Jordan, every Sunday for almost 10 years.
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Radio Show Chronicled Blacks' Harsh Realities

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Radio Show Chronicled Blacks' Harsh Realities

Radio Show Chronicled Blacks' Harsh Realities

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Television news is often credited with bringing the harsh realities of a segregated South into living rooms across the country in the early 1960s. But 70 years ago, a national and international radio audience began hearing about the struggles of African-Americans in sermons, lectures and songs.

From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett has the story of the "Wings Over Jordan" broadcasts.

DAVID C: Helen Turner Thompson vividly remembers Sunday mornings in Cleveland. She says most every radio in her neighborhood was tuned to 1450 AM.

BLOCK: And at 9 o'clock, WGAR, you'd hear their introit, they had an introit that they did. Mm-hmm.


U: It's not because I'm a coward and afraid to defend myself that I smilingly take the many abuses forced upon me through life.

BLOCK: To hear them, it was like you're getting ready for church and this group is coming on. And they're hastening you to get ready because then, when they're finished, you're ready to really go to your service.


WINGS OVER JORDAN: (Singing) Over my head, I see color in the air.

BARNETT: A thousand miles away in central Florida, Horace Boyer says the program was required listening his grandmother's house.

BLOCK: I'm 8 years old, in my sanctified church in Winter Park, Florida, we had no choir. But here's this choir singing these gorgeous Negro spirituals. Sounds like, for me, a hundred people. And it was just the rage of the whole black community throughout the South, about which I knew. And I'm sure it was the same in the North.

BARNETT: In the summer of 1940, Time magazine reported that "Wings Over Jordan" was heard on over 100 stations across the country, with an extended reach around the world via shortwave. This program was born in the sanctuary of Gethsemane Baptist Church on Cleveland's East Side. Back then, the city was a collection of ethnic neighborhoods - Italian, Polish, Slovak - and each one got an hour on the radio.

But Gethsemane pastor Glenn T. Settle found no such program for the local African-American population, and so he went to WGAR. And in the summer of 1937, "The Negro Hour" hit the airwaves with Reverend Settle delivering homilies between the hymns.


SIEGEL: Reconstruction days, though just begun, had already rocked many changes in plantation life...

BLOCK: This is him at the mic.

BARNETT: Flipping through the pages of a family photo album, Teretha Overton pauses at a picture of her grandfather.

BLOCK: This is them in New York. This is Mayor LaGuardia and my grandpa - look at this.

BARNETT: He had impeccable diction with clothing to match.

BLOCK: Grandpa Settle always had a white shirt and a tie. I mean, even in 95-degree weather, I think he refused to sweat.

BARNETT: She turns the page to a photo of another man who played a key role in the program.

BLOCK: Now, this is a picture of Worth Kramer.

BARNETT: Worth Kramer has a baton in his hand as he leads an attentive choir. The program director of WGAR, he sports a pencil-thin mustache and a tuxedo. And he's white. Some objected to his leadership because the original director of the group, James Tate, was black.

BLOCK: People did resent Worth Kramer because he did get a lot of the credit, but Worth Kramer opened doors that my grandfather could not get in.

BARNETT: One of those doors led the group to national fame when the show, renamed "Wings Over Jordan," was picked up in January of 1938 by the Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS.


U: "Wings Over Jordan" comes to you today from the studios of WGAR Cleveland, directed by Worth Kramer. So it's a vast Sunday morning audience, Columbia presents again, "Wings Over Jordan."

BARNETT: That was how gospel scholar Horace Boyer was able to hear the shows in Florida. And he says the music carried more than religious inspiration.

BLOCK: We were in the heat of segregation, sitting on the back of the bus, going to a different bathroom, going to a different school. But on Sunday morning, we became citizens of the United States because we could turn on that radio and hear this singing, and there was no mistaking, these were black people.


OVER JORDAN: (Singing) Halleluiah. In the kingdom. Amen, amen.

BARNETT: It wasn't just the music that pulled ears to the radio. John Foxhall, whose father was one of the original members of the choir, says every week, "Wings Over Jordan" featured a black artist or scholar.

BLOCK: Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell, Langston Hughes, also, they talked about current events, politics, the importance for African- Americans at the time to exercise their right to vote.

BARNETT: And up until then, such voices and ideas were all but absent on national radio. A year after the network launch, David Jones, president of Bennett College in North Carolina, compared the status of white and black women in America.


BLOCK: For Negro women, race, color and previous conditions have been added handicaps. Everywhere they have turned, America has said, you are different and inferior.

BARNETT: By virtue of being on CBS, "Wings Over Jordan" reached tens of thousands of ears, and not all of them black. John Foxhall says some of the guest speakers told stories that must have shocked white audiences.

BLOCK: Particularly during the '30s and early '40s when, as we all know, there were numerous lynchings or killings of African-Americans, particularly in the South. These stories were not carried in depth by the white media. And a number of the speakers would use his Sunday morning broadcast as an outlet to help - let the world know what was happening and the injustice that was being done in many areas.

BARNETT: In effect, the Wings broadcasts were used as a way to sneak information past the indifference of white station owners. In much the same way, spirituals were used by slaves to communicate stories about their suffering and about planned escapes.


OVER JORDAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BARNETT: Those voices fell silent in August of 1947, when Glenn Settle's devotion to message over money allegedly caused a rebellion by some of the singers, who went on strike for higher wages. The network canceled the program a month later.


OVER JORDAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BARNETT: Some scholars call "Wings Over Jordan" an early voice of the civil rights movement. Seventy-seven-year-old Helen Turner-Thompson says the show had a message for everyone.

BLOCK: The message is that they sang. We still sing those songs because we are still in that hope that one day, we will be just people. And we don't want to come away from God choosing skin color or where a person lives or what school they were - just know they are people who have come together, and God has blessed us all.

BARNETT: For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.


BLOCK: There's a portion of a 1939 "Wings Over Jordan" broadcast on our Web site, at

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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