Broadcasting pioneer to share his story at Carnegie
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Don Whitehead didn’t know he was making history when he accepted a job as a newscaster with WLAC Radio.
“I’d never seen a black person doing the news,” he said. “I didn’t realize the significance of what I was doing. It didn’t cross my mind.”
Whitehead, 72, lived in Atlanta after leaving Nashville and broadcasting. About four years ago, he moved to a home he built along a rural road in Coweta County.
Whitehead will be going back to his alma mater, Tennessee State University, next month. “They’re going to have a day up there where they hang my photo,” he said.
Among the expected guests that day will be 91-year-old Dorothy Smith, who was a doctor’s wife in Whitehead’s hometown of Richmond, Ind., when he was growing up.
Mrs. Smith had attended Tennessee State and studied drama. Whitehead was “out of high school and out of the service,” he recalled. He had returned to his hometown and was writing plays that were being produced locally.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, but people were coming to the community center to see them,” he remembered.
Then Mrs. Smith sent for the young man and told him to go to Tennessee State.
It was 1963, and Civil Rights demonstrations were taking place all over the South. South was not the direction in which Whitehead wanted travel.
Despite his initial reluctance, he eventually went to the school in Nashville, got a degree in drama and then began studying for his master’s.
“When I was finishing up my master’s degree in ‘68, Martin Luther King was assassinated. About a week later, WLAC Radio came to the campus,” Whitehead remembered.
A Tennessee State faculty member served on the board of the clear channel station, which broadcast to about 18 million people from Canada to Mexico. “Back then it was the largest station in the country,” Whitehead said.
Fred Ward, owner of the station, talked with a professor who sent Whitehead to talk to Ward about a job as a newscaster.
Whitehead told Ward he was not really interested because he was planning to move to New York and get involved in theater. “We didn’t study news. We didn’t know anything about that,” he said – thinking of his drama studies.
WLAC’s leadership urged Whitehead to think about their offer. There were two more interviews. “The third time, I just gave in,” Whitehead said.
Ward told his new hire to show up for a press conference a few days later – and to wear a tie. “I didn’t have a tie,” Whitehead recalled, but he got one.
When he got to the radio station, he was seated in a roomful of reporters and photographers. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what to think,” he said.
Until then, Whitehead had not known he was making Civil Rights history.
Reflecting on his college experiences and his entry into broadcasting, Whitehead said, “It just seemed to fall into place from ‘upstairs’ down to me. It’s like there was a plan.”
Whitehead said his hometown in Indiana was “just a step from down South” in terms of race relations.
“As kids, we all went to school together – white and black,” he said. Life in Richmond, however, was segregated “when school was out,” he remembered.
“You couldn’t go to the white eating establishments,” he said. Blacks were restricted to an upstairs balcony in the movie theater, and the swimming pool at the city park was for whites only.
“We had to swim in the river. We didn’t pay it any mind. We’d just go down to the river and swim,” Whitehead said.
What Richmond did offer African-Americans was work. Whitehead’s parents had married in Tuskegee, Ala., and had migrated north for a better life. His father worked at a factory in Richmond.
“We had a very good life at home,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead’s oldest sister was a teacher. Black teachers were not hired in Richmond at that time, and she taught in Gary, Ind., for years. “When I was a kid, she took me to her high school play. I was just thrilled. That kind of stuck with me,” he said.
When Whitehead was hired for the job at WLAC, the station sent him to a weeklong crash course “to get the fundamentals of radio,” he recalled.
He remembered his first time on the air. “I was so nervous. I forgot to turn the mike on,” Whitehead said. “I could see every one of the 18 million (listeners.)”
Part of his anxiety had to do with the fact people he knew were listening. “My family could hear me up in Indiana. Everybody who knew me was listening,” he said. “I was kind of dumbfounded by it.”
In addition to preparing and giving newscasts and playing rhythm and blues and gospel music, Whitehead also sold products for the station. African-Americans did not have access to a drugstore in rural areas, and small country stores often did not sell products they wanted.
The radio station offered Royal Crown hair dressing, shaving lotion and “all kinds of makeup,” Whitehead remembered. Baby chicks were also for sale. “They sold baby chickens left and right,” he said.
“It was selling, selling, selling,” he said.
His hourly news reports included local, state, regional and national topics. “I had to get up my own news, put it together and report it,” Whitehead said.
There were several facets to Whitehead’s job at WLAC. He was to be the station’s ambassador in the community, and he also was tapped to do a series of stories on African-American universities. Eventually, he visited 38 campuses.
Whitehead taped lots of interviews. He particularly treasures memories of an interview with Louis Armstrong and also interviewed blues musician B.B. King, country singer Dottie West and sports legend Jackie Robinson.
He remembered getting some quotes from Liberace. “I caught him in an airport,” Whitehead said.
When Pres. Lyndon Johnson came to Nashville to dedicate a dam, Whitehead tried to ask a question about the Civil Rights bill without success.
He did interview Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who he remembers as being direct and attentive. “Henry Kissinger looked me straight in the eye. He didn’t turn his head,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead also interviewed George Wallace when the former Alabama governor was running for president. Though he did not begin his career until after the death of Martin Luther King, he did get to interview many of the Civil Rights leader’s lieutenants – Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, John Lewis.
“I spent time with all of them,” Whitehead said. “We’re still close friends – the ones who are still here.”