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Preserving the legacy of America's first Black radio station

Meet the man who is preserving the legacy of WERD, the first Black-owned radio station that was founded in 1949 by J.B. Blayton in Atlanta.
Posted at 11:55 AM, Feb 09, 2023

The sound of a vinyl record on a Victrola is a symphony of crackles and pops, a delicate dance between needle and groove. 

Each record tells a story of musical legends, long gone by. 

It was 21 years ago when Ricci deForest would stumble upon a special place that changed his life forever. 

"This is an unbelievable music collection — 1920s through the 1970s and '80s. Every one, every genre: blues, jazz, gospel, classical, comedy, you know, it's just freakin' incredible," he said. "It's what drew me over here."

He soon discovered that the tucked away building in Atlanta's historic Sweet Auburn District was rich in history and held a unique past that he now leases. 

"We're physically inside an original Madam C.J. Walker beauty shop from the 1940s. WERD, the first Black radio station in North America, was technically above this space," deForest said.

WERD was the first Black-owned radio station, founded in 1949 by J.B. Blayton. It was birthed with purpose in mind — to serve as a beacon of hope, a voice for Black folks at a time when Black perspectives were scarce, especially on the radio. But that didn't make it any easier.

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Blayton "had to have a White guy go down and get the station for him because they wouldn't have sold it to him," deForest said. "Once J.B. Blayton took ownership of the station, which was downtown, they had to move out of the building because the owners of the building didn't want Blacks on the second floor using the bathroom. So, they had to move to Auburn Avenue."

Sweet Auburn Avenue was once a bustling boulevard of dreams, known for its significant role in the civil rights movement. It was the epicenter of Black business and cultural achievement. 

"Auburn Avenue — it's like a sliding door," deForest said. "It was running parallel with the Harlem Renaissance. But because New York is New York, people don't give thought to maybe other Black areas that were doing the same thing. This is the Harlem Renaissance area of the South. "

Many of the same artists who made their mark in Harlem could often be found gracing the stages and streets of Auburn Avenue. 

"Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, everyone would walk up and down the street because when these people performed, they came to WERD to promote the fact that they were performing," deForest said.

WERD Radio was important because it gave a voice to Black artists who were often excluded from White-owned radio stations. It offered a variety of programming, including news and political commentary, and became a central platform for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

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"WERD was in place prior to [Martin Luther] King's movement. So, if it wasn't for WERD, Dr. King wouldn't have had a media platform to deliver his message," deForest continued. 

DeForest's discovery of WERD Radio's rich tapestry of history was both thrilling and saddening. Realizing it had not been safeguarded, he embraced the challenge with open arms, determined to preserve and protect the legacy of the station for future generations to admire and cherish. 

"Just look around now, to all these artists up here — they give me a core understanding and appreciation for the foundation that was built," he said. "And so, if I'm building on that, then I need to make sure that what I build on that is as strong as the foundation that I'm standing on."

This space now serves as a testament to both the Madame C.J. Walker Museum and WERD Studios, honoring the history and legacy of these important cultural landmarks.  

"The humility and the power that I got as a result of learning this lifted me," deForest said. "So, I'm thinking to myself, 'If it's lifting me, perhaps it will lift future generations.'"

While getting the next generation to embrace old sounds isn't his goal, deForest is dedicated to enlightening those who step through these sacred doors to the tangible, audible history of a resilient past.