Before It Was Rock, It Was Race – WDIA, Memphis: Sepia Swing Club 1951 – Past Daily Pop Chronicles
Teenagers in segregated America. Before the dawn of Rock n’Roll it was called Race Music. And it was Blues, Jump Blues and Bop. And it was just after World War 2, right around the time of the Korean War. President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948 which ended segregation in the Armed Forces and led to complete integration in the Military by 1954. Coincidence? We think not. Access to music that was formerly unavailable to White? Most likely.
But that wasn’t necessarily the case outside the military – schools were still segregated – as were public pools, restrooms, waiting rooms, water fountains, movie theaters, concerts and just about everything else that involved people interacting with each other on a mass scale. The only thing that wasn’t segregated, particularly in the South, were the airwaves. Those stations offered a whole different world from what was otherwise dominated by Whites. Those radio stations were either in rural or in urban areas with large Black populations – they were mostly, but not all, owned by Black entrepreneurs, and they catered to a Black audience where even the commercials were different, even if they were for the same products as Whites.
And there was the music – music most White audiences had never heard, except those who had kept their ears to the ground or who were exposed to it via the Military during Korea.
Programs, like this one – The Sepia Swing Club, a two hour show which aired daily were a staple in the diets of Urban radio at the time, and this represented a cross-section of the music Black America was listening to and playing at the time.
Although it’s hard to imagine an atmosphere where something as un-racially biased as music was actually censored based on the race of the musicians. And that segregation was a fact of life in the 1950s, as it had been for decades previous, that despite all that word got out, records were being bought and played by White audiences and musical tastes were beginning to change as the result.
As an example of what Black Radio was like in the late 1940s and early 1950s, here is a 15-minute excerpt of The Sepia Swing Club from WDIA in Memphis as it was heard on December 17, 1951.
Stay tuned – there are many more hours from many more stations in the South from this time period.