–THE MADAME CJ WALKER MUSEUM–
Home of the first black-owned radio station
At dawn on October 3, 1949, history was made when WERD radio began its first day of broadcasting. The station had been purchased two months earlier by Jesse B. Blayton, Sr., an entrepreneur who was the first black CPA in the U.S., founder of Citizens Trust Bank, and owner of his own accounting firm. Blayton said, “Here in Atlanta, WERD will be owned and operated by Negroes for the benefit of Negroes. I’m quite sure that it’s the first time this has ever happened in the history of radio.”
Blayton went on to state his vision for the station: “My purpose is to put on programs which will aid in creating more good will between the races in this area. And I wish to say that my desire is to create that good will within the existing pattern of this community. I believe strongly in this pattern and am going to do everything I can to maintain it and strengthen it.”
Listen to Martin Luther King's 1964 speech on music at the Berlin Jazz Festival here.
The station operated at 860 on the AM band with 1,000 watts of power. Studios were located in the “Sweet Auburn” district of Atlanta at 274 ½ Auburn Avenue in the Prince Hall Grand Lodge building, which also housed a TV and radio school for blacks owned by Blayton. The radio signal covered most of the city, with a weaker signal reaching nearby suburbs. Atlanta’s population at the time was about 331,000 with 35% being black, yielding a target audience of 116,000 people.
Programming in the early years of the station included prayer, news, and gospel music with morning programs like Morning Jive Show, Devotional Period, and the gospel music program Sweet Chariot. Afternoons on WERD included Red, Hot, and Blue, Bondu’s Rendezvous, and Strictly for Lovers. A few years later, WERD added jazz, blues, and R&B music to the playlist, and the station's DJs such as “Cousin Herb” Lance and James “Alley Pat” Patrick began to achieve celebrity status in Atlanta.
The station fulfilled Jesse Blayton's vision by providing news about civil rights events, sponsoring community health programs, promoting black entertainers and churches, providing a medium for black-owned businesses to advertise, and offering the community's white neighbors with an opportunity to surreptitiously listen into Atlanta's African-American experience. Civil rights activist and former Atlanta mayor, Andrew Young, said, "In Atlanta, WERD not only played good music, it gave us our news. It was probably the only station to report on the civil rights movement objectively."
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) opened its headquarters in the same building as WERD in 1957, which gave the group access to a means of communicating quickly and easily with Atlanta's black population. "Jockey Jack" Gibson, a DJ at WERD, offers this example:
SCLC had their offices right under the radio station. And Dr. King's office was there, as was Ralph Abernathy and Andy Young, and all of them. They used to come there all the time. So whenever we wanted to give announcements... they'd even hand it to us or they'd bring it up 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 the 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 [that he was finished] was "Thank you and we'll see all of you tonight at Ebenezer Baptist Church," or wherever. And I would say, "And we have just heard another message from Martin Luther King, Jr., President of SCLC. And now on with our programming."
Blayton sold the station in 1968, but the legacy lives on, especially in the form of the "colored" or "race" music the station popularized. The
WERDStudio museum includes records that were played on the station, and those records are available for you to see, handle, and listen to. Moreover, the museum's collection has expanded significantly to include more than 15,000 LPs, 45s, and 78s. It is one of the largest single collections of vinyl in Atlanta. The collection is on display in the museum in what has been dubbed "The Great Wall of Vinyl."
The museum has begun a project to catalog and organize all of the items in the collection and to make the data base accessible online. You can view the collection and our progress toward cataloging all 15,000 pieces here.
A visit to the museum will give you the opportunity to hear more stories about WERD and the pioneering role it had in giving African-Americans a voice, and to view and listen to the museum's amazing collection of vinyl recordings. Can we cue up a song for you?