Richard Durham Papers, 1939-1999
Biographical Note: Richard Durham
Scope and Content: Richard Durham Papers, 1939–1999
Manuscripts | Photographs and Audiovisual Materials | Serials
Addendum: Audio Recordings of Destination Freedom Radio Plays
|Collection Number:||Richard Durham 1998/02|
|Provenance:||Donation of Clarice Durham (June, November and December 1998). See Note on the Provenance.|
|Size:||Original donation: 14 archival boxes, 12 linear feet|
Addendum: 91 compact discs; five archival boxes, 6 linear feet
|Repository:||Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library (Chicago Public Library), 9525 S. Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60628|
|Citation:||When quoting material from this collection, the preferred citation is: Richard Durham Papers, (Box #, Folder #), Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library|
Allyson Hobbs, Mapping the Stacks, August 2007
Beverly Cook, Assistant Curator of the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library; assisted by Jeanie Child, Harsh Archival Processing Project, January 2012
Clarice Durham, wife of Richard Durham, donated the Richard Durham Papers to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection in June, November and December of 1998.
Richard Durham created Destination Freedom, a groundbreaking radio series that dramatized the struggle for civil rights in America. Destination Freedom aired on WMAQ, a Chicago radio station, on Sunday mornings from 1948 to 1950. In March 2005, Clarice Durham donated the 91 audiotapes to the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Portions of this collection are available on the online archives section of the Museum of Broadcast Communications website and the complete collection is available for listening at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, located at 400 N. State Street, Suite 240, Chicago, IL 60610.
Richard Durham’s essay, “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” (1938?), from the Negro Newspaper Study, is located in the Illinois Writers’ Project collection, Box 41, Folder 7. This essay borrows its title from a slogan of the Chicago Whip newspaper and describes the movement that used the black consumer boycott as part of an appeal for economic justice.
Several documents relating to the appearances of the Destination Freedom cast at the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library are located in the Hall Branch Library Archives, Box 3.
Dr. J. Fred MacDonald, radio historian and author of Richard Durham’s “Destination Freedom:” Scripts from Radio’s Black Legacy, 1948-1950 (1989) donated audio recordings (CD) of 91 Destination Freedom series radio broadcasts to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection in March 2009. Along with these he also donated CD recordings of interviews he conducted with Richard Durham, Homer Heck and Oscar Brown, Jr. John Dunning also participated as an interviewer. All of these recordings have been added to the Richard Durham Papers, with the approval of Clarice Durham, donor of the Richard Durham Papers.
MacDonald is professor of history, emeritus, at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Most of his nearly three decades of university life were spent researching and teaching the history of U.S. popular culture, particularly the social-cultural history of U.S. television and radio. His seven published books include (in addition to the work listed above) Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948 (1984, 1992), and Don’t Touch that Dial! Radio Programming in American Life, 1920-1960 (1979). His historical collection, MacDonald and Associates, provides an historical film archive of wide scope and an audio archive that covers more than a century of recorded sound including radio programs, speeches, interviews and vintage musical performances.
MacDonald may be reached via his website, J. Fred MacDonald.
Richard Durham was born on September 6, 1917 in Raymond, Mississippi, a small rural community in Hindes County. His father, a farmer, aspired to a better life outside of the South and moved the family to Chicago when Durham was seven years old. Durham attended Hyde Park High School and Northwestern University. While at Northwestern, Durham joined the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration and received training and experience as a radio scriptwriter. When this project ended, Durham joined the staff of the Chicago Defender. Durham’s first major experience with radio came between 1946 and 1948 when he wrote scripts for a series on black achievement, Democracy U.S.A., which aired on WBBM, a CBS station. A workplace injury unexpectedly began Durham’s writing career. While working at a shade cleaning plant, he injured his foot by standing in a chemical solution with shoes that were not waterproof. While he was recovering, his sister gave him a typewriter and he began to write poetry and soon won first prize in a poetry contest. Durham created and wrote all the scripts for Here Comes Tomorrow, a black soap opera that aired on WJJD. Destination Freedom, a dramatic radio series on WMAQ in Chicago, brought the freedom struggles of African Americans to Chicago listening audiences on Sunday mornings between 1948 and 1950. Durham’s prolific writing career would span four decades and would extend far beyond radio: Durham edited the official publication of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Speaks in the 1960s; he created the television series Bird of the Iron Feather in the early 1970s; he co-authored The Greatest, the autobiography of boxing champion Muhammad Ali, which was published in 1977; and he wrote numerous speeches for Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, in the 1980s.
The premier of Destination Freedom on June 27, 1948 signaled a landmark in African American broadcasting history. Drawing on the talents of young intellectuals and entertainers including Oscar Brown Jr., Studs Terkel, Janice Kingslow, Wezlyn Tilden, Fred Pinkard and Vernon Jarrett, Durham developed scripts that captured the lives and struggles of everyday men and women as well as prominent African Americans. Unlike the typical radio fare of its time, Destination Freedom featured social dramas that eloquently appealed for racial justice. As Durham explained, “the real-life story of a single Negro in Alabama walking into a voting booth across a Ku Klux Klan line has more drama and world implications than all the stereotypes Hollywood or radio can turn out in a thousand years.” In striking contrast to the hackneyed images of blacks and as a remedy to the gross underrepresentation of blacks in radio production, Durham cast black actors in leading roles and told the stories of activists and leaders including Frederick Douglass, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Mary Church Terrell; writers and artists including Richard Wright, Katherine Dunham and Gwendolyn Brooks and cultural legends such as Stackalee and John Henry.
Hours of careful research at the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library with Vivian Harsh’s assistance, close readings of autobiographies, monographs and speeches and skilled scriptwriting brought these historical and contemporary figures to life in poignant detail on Destination Freedom. Certain of the redemptive power of black history and education, Durham went beyond recounting the biographies of these figures and focused on the ways that they overcame racial injustice through resistance. Durham challenged network protocols to ensure that the series featured black women as equally important, history-making figures. The series lacked a sponsor for most of the time it aired on WMAQ, but by relying on his earlier connections, Durham persuaded the Chicago Defender to fund the first weeks of the broadcast and the Urban League sponsored several broadcasts in 1950. Despite Durham’s efforts to exercise authorial control over the series, WMAQ edited, controlled final script approval and rejected the more controversial stories of the lives of Nat Turner and Paul Robeson. Despite these conflicts, the station recognized the import and the success of the show when in 1949, it won a prestigious first-place award from the Institute for Education by Radio. On the anniversary of its first episode, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson commended the program for its efforts in increasing racial tolerance and in educating the public on the contributions of African Americans. Despite these accolades, WMAQ canceled Destination Freedom in 1950, just as the rising tide of anti-Communist conservatism began to adversely affect radio and the arts.
Durham remained actively involved in civil rights struggles throughout his life. In the 1950s, he worked as the national program director of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. Durham was hired to write a pamphlet on the accomplishments of the union’s anti-discrimination department. The pamphlet, “Action Against Jim Crow: UPWA’s Fight for Equal Rights,” described the progressive work of the union to end job discrimination and to elevate women to equal status and equal pay in the workplace. The union was so pleased with Durham’s work that they hired him as the head of the program office and he wrote and developed materials to publicize the union’s programs and events. But conflict arose as Durham continued to put pressure on the union to support and to prioritize black advancement. In 1957, he was forced to resign.
After leaving the union, Durham worked as a freelance journalist. In the 1960s, he became the editor of Muhammad Speaks, the weekly publication of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Durham sought to provide an international perspective to the newspaper and included several articles on the independence struggles of African nations in the 1960s. In 1971, Durham created a television series, Bird of the Iron Feather, which aired on WTTW, a local PBS station in Chicago. Described as a “soul drama” and funded by the Ford Foundation, this series was praised for introducing more authentic television programming and for portraying African American life in a more realistic fashion. Given the dearth of blacks in television production, Bird of the Iron Feather broke new ground by being almost exclusively written, directed and produced by blacks. While working as an editor for Muhammad Speaks, Durham was asked to assist Muhammad Ali in writing his autobiography, The Greatest, which was published in 1977.
Richard Durham met Clarice Davis in the early 1940s while both were volunteering with the National Negro Congress. Clarice was born in Mobile, Alabama and moved to Chicago when she was eleven years old. She attended Wendell Phillips High School until it was temporarily closed because of a fire. She graduated from DuSable High School where she was the valedictorian of her class. The couple married in 1942. During their married life, Ms. Durham was an early childhood educator. She also made significant contributions to Durham’s work by reading, editing and typing many of the Destination Freedom scripts. Mrs. Durham has remained a lifelong human rights activist. After working for the National Negro Congress, she was a member of the Progressive Party in Chicago in the late 1940s. Mrs. Durham continues to be an activist for the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression and has campaigned for freedom for Mark Clements, a victim of police torture. Richard and Clarice Durham have one son, Mark Durham.
Richard Durham died on April 27, 1984 while on a business trip in New York. At the time of his death, Durham was researching the life of Hannibal, the illustrious Carthagenian warrior who planned to conquer Rome. Mayor Harold Washington delivered the eulogy at his memorial service and a number of famous Chicagoans including historian Dempsey Travis, entertainer and former Destination Freedom cast member Oscar Brown Jr. and Congressmen Charles Hayes and Gus Savage attended the service.
In August 2007, Richard Durham was selected for induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
The Richard Durham Collection is comprised mostly of manuscripts and primarily includes scripts written for the Destination Freedom and Bird of the Iron Feather series. Additional manuscript material includes scripts written for Democracy, U.S.A. as well as the page proofs for the autobiography of Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, published in 1977. The collection also contains clippings, correspondence, photographs and serials. The collection is organized into the following three series: Manuscripts, Photographs and Audiovisual Materials, and Serials.
Manuscripts, Boxes 1-12 (1939-1978)
The manuscripts series comprise the lion’s share of the collection. Boxes 1-4 consist of Destination Freedom scripts, which are organized by airdate. These scripts include the stories of numerous African American leaders, activists and cultural figures including W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, Richard Wright, John Henry, Gwendolyn Brooks, and “Fats” Waller. The scripts from a two-part series exploring racial prejudice and racial violence and a program on housing inequality in Chicago are also included. A folder in Box 4 titled “Destination Freedom memorabilia” consists of correspondence from May 1949 regarding the appearance of the cast at the Parkway Community House as well as a first anniversary program and materials on “Destination Freedom Week,” a series of events promoted by the Chicago Radio Listeners Appreciation Guild. Box 5 consists of scripts that Durham wrote while he was a member of the WPA’s Writers’ Project. These scripts, from the Great Artists Series, were broadcast on WGN between 1940 and 1942 and include stories on Spanish painter Francisco Goya, Mexican painter Jose Orozco, and French painter Henri Matisse. Clippings of articles about racial injustice written by Richard Durham for the Chicago Defender are also contained in Box 5, such as: “Crump Thinks Negroes Given Fair Treatment,” in which Durham interviewed Edward Crump, the head of Memphis’ Democratic political party (April 8, 1944); an article about a bellboy who was flogged by a deputy in a county jail in Belleville, Illinois (August 5, 1944); and an article about Owosso, Michigan, the hometown of Governor Thomas Dewey, the Republican nominee for President, in which residents boasted of “never allowing a Negro to stay overnight” (August 22, 1944). While working as the national program director of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, Durham created a pamphlet, “Action Against Jim Crow: UPWA’s Fight for Equal Rights.” Included in Box 5, this pamphlet tells the story of an experienced packinghouse worker who could not get a job at Swift & Company because of racial discrimination. The worker’s experiences are juxtaposed with her son’s service in the armed forces during the Korean War. The worker’s son wonders why black men are dying overseas for a country that refuses to provide decent jobs for all of its citizens.
Box 6 contains Durham’s research notes taken while he was writing the scripts for Destination Freedom and a copy of Earl Dickerson’s speech for the ASP Negro Rights Forum given in the 1940s. This box also consists of various correspondence including letters regarding Muhammad Ali’s autobiography, The Greatest and letters that discussed the television series Bird of the Iron Feather. Of particular interest is a handwritten note from artist Jacob Lawrence dated May 17, 1949 that provides Lawrence’s biographical information and a list of his achievements. Letters from Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, to government officials requesting copies of all documents listed under the name of Emmett Till’s father, Louis Till, are also included. Durham helped Mobley to draft these letters and urged her to submit them before access to such information, granted by the Freedom of Information Act, was curtailed by the Reagan administration. Poetry by Richard Durham, including poems published in the Chicago Defender in 1937 and 1938, are also included. One letter is of special note: Durham corresponded with Langston Hughes and received a letter dated September 10, 1939 regarding Hughes’ comments on Durham’s poetry. Copies of Durham’s poems with Hughes’ handwritten notations accompany the letter.
Box 7 includes scripts from Democracy, U.S.A. and Bird of the Iron Feather. Box 8 contains fragments of scripts and a biographical sketch of Durham. Materials related to Durham’s lawsuit against NBC comprise Box 9. Durham filed suit to gain NBC’s admission that Destination Freedom was Durham’s exclusive creation and property. After Destination Freedom was canceled, the network used the same title to broadcast a show that aired at the same time with a similar format. Box 10 includes scripts from Bird of the Iron Feather, and Boxes 11 and 12 contain typescript and page proofs from Muhammad Ali’s autobiography, The Greatest.
Photographs and Audiovisual Materials, Box 13 (1949, 1970, 1999, 2007)
This series includes twenty-nine photographs, mostly of the cast members of Destination Freedom. These photographs capture the cast reading scripts and participating in community programs. Individual photographs feature the following actors: Louise Pruitt, Fred Pinkard, Oscar Brown, Jr., and Janice Kingslow. Other photographs capture Richard Durham sitting at his typewriter, writing Destination Freedom. This series also contains a reprint of Destination Freedom publicity materials, a photograph of Richard Durham while he is being interviewed about Bird of the Iron Feather, historical photographs of Ida B. Wells Barnett, a reproduction of a page from a script on Harriet Tubman and an honorable withdrawal card from the American Newspaper Guild.
This series also includes two audiovisual materials: a VHS tape, “The Sound of Freedom,” by Afaf Qayyum from the 1999 Chicago Metro History Fair and an interview with Clarice Davis Durham and Charles Durham recorded by StoryCorps Griot in July 2007.
Serials, Box 14 (1964-1975)
This series includes copies of Muhammad Speaks, the publication of the Nation of Islam, which Durham edited. Durham brought an international perspective to the newspaper and included several articles on the independence struggles of African nations in the 1960s. Also contained in this series are the oversized, bound editions of Muhammad Speaks, published between September 1964 and April 1967.
Addendum, Boxes 15-19 (1948-1987)
This series includes 91 compact discs of the radio series Destination Freedom, donated by J. Fred MacDonald. (See Note on the Provenance.) It is arranged chronologically by airdate of the radio broadcasts.