Before Martha Jean, Mojo and Mason there was Van Douglas
By Ken Coleman
Van Douglas was Detroit’s first black radio star. The native Virginian and Wayne State University graduate enjoyed a broadcast career that spanned for more than 50 years.
Douglas, born Howard Douglas Morrison on May 6, 1915, worked as an announcer on WMBC-AM 1400 beginning in 1937 on the “Flying Cloud Quintet” broadcast. In 1941, the station became WJLB at the request of its owner John Lord Booth.
By the mid-1940s, after Douglas served in World War II, he began hosting music broadcasts “Harlem on Parade” and “Harlem Nocturne” on WJBK-AM 1490. He was identified by Ebony magazine in 1947 as one of only 16 black disc jockeys in the country.
DETROIT BLACK RADIO PIONEERS
During Douglas’ heyday, Detroit was still a growing city, eventually topping off at 1.8 million residents in 1950. And its black population was growing, too. In fact, it doubled between 1940 and 1950, skyrocketing from 149,000 residents to 300,000 residents. But very few local radio stations, however, offered programming geared toward African-Americans other than WJLB-AM 1400 and CKLW-AM 800. Both stations sold block time to blacks, mainly clergy leaders, who delivered sermons or featured choirs and gospel music. WJBK’s Ed McKenzie, known as “Jack the Bellboy,” was the only white disc jockey in Detroit during the 1940s who played black artists like Nat Cole, Louis Jordan and Sarah Vaughan on a routine basis.
Leroy White, an African American, was a contemporary of Douglas’ working on WJBK as well as WJLB during the 1940s. His “Rockin’ with LeRoy” broadcast featured rhythm and blues-style tunes that were the forerunner to rock and roll music that exploded on the scene during the mid 1950s. Other trailblazing black voices were Bill Lane who hosted a Sunday afternoon broadcast on the “Great Voice of the Great Lakes” WJR-AM 760; Jack Surrell who hosted a laid back jazz music program called “Top of the Town” on WXYZ-AM 1270; and Bristoe Bryant who hosted both an R&B program called “Bristoe’s Place” and a gospel program called “Southland Spirituals “on WJLB. “Frantic” Ernie Durham with his “Hubcap Caravan” broadcast wasn’t far behind and he became the king of black radio by decades’ end.
Dr. Haley Bell and Dr. Wendell Cox, both black dentists, applied for a license to operate a radio station in 1954 and the Federal Communications Commission granted their request. On November 7, 1956, the men launched WCHB-AM 1440 based in Inkster on Henry Ruff Road. WERD in Atlanta was the nation’s first black-owned radio station. WCHB, however, holds the distinction of being the first built from the ground up in American history. Bell and Cox acquired land, built a studio and administrative offices and commissioned Clarence Ringo Jr. to construct an antenna to transmit the station’s signal. WCHB’s early voices included “Joltin” Joe Howard and “Long Tall Lean” Larry Dean Faulkner, both of whom were established announcers who had previously worked as talent on WERD. Another early WCHB voice was women’s editor Trudy Haynes, a Howard University-trained journalist who also had been a fashion model and appeared on Lucky Strikes cigarette magazine ads.
When Van Douglas’ WJBK programs left the air, he, according to his son Doug, began broadcasting a Sunday morning gospel show that featured quartets. He also began mentoring Doug, who later became a news anchor during the mid 1970s on WGPR-TV 62.
Van’s radio career paralleled his tenure as an educator. He served as a Detroit Public Schools teacher at Barstow, McCullough and Duffield schools as well as an assistant principal at Lillibridge Elementary school. A deacon and treasurer at Conant Gardens Church of Christ, Douglas earned a Michigan Gospel Pioneer award in 1994, which was sponsored by McDonald’s and Michigan State University.
He died at age 84 on July 29, 1999 after suffering a heart attack while vacationing in Las Vegas.
Ken Coleman wrote about Van Douglas in his book “Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit.”