Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again


Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2018 issue of New Horizons

 

Nebraskans take pride in high achieving native sons and daughters, Some doers don’t live to see their accomplishments burnished in halls of history or celebrated by admirers. This past spring, however, Cathy Hughes, 71, personally accepted recognition in the place where her twin passions for communication and activism began, North Omaha.

The mogul’s media holdings include the Radio One and TV One networks.

During a May 16-19 homecoming filled with warm appreciation and sweet nostalgia, Urban One chair Hughes reunited with life-shaping persons and haunts. An entourage of friends and family accompanied Hughes, who lives in the Washington D.C. area where her billion dollar business empire’s based. Her son and business partner Alfred Liggins Jr., who was born in Omaha, basked in the heartfelt welcome.

Being back always stirs deep feelings.

“Every time I come I feel renewed,” Hughes said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged.”

With part of Paxton Boulevard renamed after her, a day in her honor officially proclaimed in her hometown and the Omaha Press Club making her a Face on the Barroom Floor, this visit was extra special.

“It was so emotionally charged for me. It’s like hometown approval.”

During the street dedication ceremony at Fontenelle Park, surrounded by a who’s-who of North O, Hughes said, “I cannot put into words how important this is to me. This is the memory I will take to my grave. This is the day that will stand out. When you come home to your own and they say to you job well done, there’s nothing better than that.”

 

Cathy Hughes Headshot 1B - 2017.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Cathy Hughes

 

Cathy Hughes’ mother, Helen Jones Woods with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, circa 1940

 

Welcoming home an icon

Good-natured ribbing flowed at the park and at the Press Club, where she was roasted.

The irony of the Press Club honor is that when Hughes was young blacks were unwelcome there except as waiters, bartenders and kitchen help. The idea of a street honoring a person of color then was unthinkable.

“This community has progressed,” Hughes told an overflow Empowerment Network audience at the downtown Hilton. “An empowerment conference with this many people never could have taken place in my childhood in Omaha. This is impressive.”

Empowerment Network founder-president Willie Barney introduced her by saying, “She is a pioneer. She is one of the best entrepreneurs in the world. She is a legend.”

Nebraska Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers helped organize the weekend tribute for the legend.

“I think Cathy Hughes is the baddest girl on the planet,” Rodgers said. “She’s historical coming from Omaha all the way up to be this giant radio and TV mega producer and second richest black lady in the country. It’s just fantastic she’s a product of this black community. I want to make sure all the kids in our community realize they can be what Cathy’s done. Anything’s possible.

“I want hers to be a household name.”

Some felt the hometown honors long overdue. Everyone agreed they were well-deserved.

A promising start

People who grew up with her weren’t surprised when she left Omaha in 1972 as a single mother and realized her childhood dream of finding success in radio.

She had it all growing up – sharp intellect, good looks,  gift for gab, disarming charm, burning ambition and aspirational parents. Her precocious ways made her popular and attracted suitors.

“She’s very personable,” lifelong friend Theresa Glass  said. “She’s been a gifted communicator all the time. My grandmother Ora Glass was her godmother and she always believed Cathy was destined for great things.”

Radio veteran Edward L. “Buddy” King said, “She had this thing about her. Everybody projected she would be doing something real good. She knew how to carry herself. Cathy’s a beautiful woman. She’s smart, too.”

Glass recalled, “Cathy was always an excellent student. She’s always used her intellect in various pursuits. She was always out in the working world. Cathy used all the education and skills she learned and then she built on those things. So when she went to D.C, she was prepared to work hard and to do something out of the ordinary for women and for African Americans to do.”

 

Members of the De Porres Club in 1948

 

Cathy’s parents were pioneers themselves.

Her mother Helen Jones Woods, 94, played trombone in the all-girl, mixed-race swing band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Helen’s adoptive father, Laurence C. Jones. founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which Helen attended. Cathy and her family lived in Jim Crow Mississippi for two years. She’s a major supporter of the school today.

Cathy’s late father, William A. Woods, was the first black accounting graduate at Creighton University. He and Cathy’s mother were active in the Omaha civil rights group the De Porres Club, whose staunchest supporter was Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

“Very young, I marched,” recalled Cathy Hughes, who’s the oldest of four siblings. “I was maybe 6-years old when we picketed the street car (company) trying to get black drivers. I remember vividly being slapped on the back of my head by my mother to ‘hold the sign up straight.’ I remember demonstrating but most importantly I heard truth being spoken.”

“Cathy’s parents were community-oriented people,” King said. “They cared about their community. They were  well-to-do in their circles. Cathy grew up in that but she never lost her street savvy.”

While attending private schools (she integrated Duschene Academy), she said, “The nuns would send notes home to my mother saying I had delusions of grandeur, I talked all the time, and I was very opinionated. I bragged I would be the first black woman to have a nationally syndicated program.

“I was good and grown before I found out that had already been accomplished.”

Her penchant for speaking her mind stood her apart.

“When I was growing up black folks didn’t verbalize  their feelings and particularly children didn’t.”

Mildred Brown gave her father an office at the Star. Cathy did his books and sold classified ads for the paper. Her father also waited tables at the Omaha Club and on the Union Pacific passenger rail service between Omaha and Idaho. She sometimes rode the train with her father on those Omaha to Pocatello runs.

 

 Taken under wing

She found mentors in black media professionals Brown and Star reporter-columnist, Charlie Washington. The community-based advocacy practiced by the paper and by radio station KOWH, where she later worked, became her trademark.

“We had a militancy existing in Omaha and when you’re a child growing up in that you just assume you’re supposed to try to make life better for your people because that’s what was engrained in us. We didn’t have to wait to February for black history. We were told of great black accomplishments on a regular basis at church, in school, in social gatherings. Black folks in Omaha have a nationalist pride.

“I was imbued with community service and activism. I don’t know any different. My mother on Sunday would go to the orphanage and bring back children home for dinner. We were living in the Logan Fontenelle projects and one chicken was already serving six and she would bring two or three other kids and so that meant we got a piece of a wing because Daddy always got the breast.”

During her May visit she recalled the tight-knit “village” of North Omaha where “everybody knew everybody.”

In the spirit of “always doing something to improve your community and family,” she participated in NAACP Youth Council demonstrations to integrate the Peony Park swimming pool.

“Because we were disciplined and strategic, there was a calm and deliberate delivery of demands on our part. I don’t know if it was youth naivete or pure unadulterated optimism, but we didn’t think we would fail.”

Peony Park gave into the pressure.

Opposing injustice, she said, “instilled in me a certain level of fearlessness, purpose and accomplishment I carried with me for the rest of my life.”

“It taught me the lesson that there’s power in unity.”

Her passion once nearly sparked an international incident on a University of Nebraska at Omaha Black Studies tour to Africa.

“The first day we arrived in Addis Ababa, Eithiopia, the students at Haile Selassie University #1 were staging demonstrations that ultimately led to the dethroning of emperor Haile Selassie. Well, we almost got put out of the country because when I heard there was a demonstration I left the hotel and ran over to join the picket line with the Eithiopian students. My traveling companions were like, ‘No, you cant do that in a foreign country, they’re going to deport us.’ Hey, I never saw a demonstration I didn’t feel like i should be a part of.”

 

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Charlie Washington

 

The influence of her mentors went wherever she went.

“Mildred Brown unapologetically published Charlie Washington’s rants, exposes, accusations, evidence. She didn’t censor or edit him. If Charlie felt the mayor wasn’t doing a good job, that’s what you read in the Omaha Star. It took the mute button off of the voice of the black community. It promoted progress. It also provided information and jobs. It’s always been a vehicle for advocacy, inspiration and motivation.

“That probably was the greatest lesson I could have witnessed because one of the reasons some folks don’t speak out in the African-American community is they’re afraid of being financially penalized or losing their job, so they just remain silent. Mildred and Charlie did not remain silent and she was still financially successful.”

Both figures became extended family to her.

“Charlie Washington became like my godfather. He was the rabble rouser of my youth. He had the power of the pen. Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry. I saw with Charlie you can tell the truth about the needs and the desires of your community without being penalized” even though he wrote “probably some of the most militant articles in the United States.”

“That’s the environment I grew up in. So the combination of Charlie always writing the truth and Mildred being able to keep a newspaper in Omaha solvent were both sides of my personality – the commitment side and the entrepreneurial side.”

Today, Hughes inspires young black communicators with her own journey of perseverance and imagination in pushing past barriers and redefining expectations.

 

No turning back

As an aspiring media professional. Hughes most admired Mildred Brown’s “dogged determination.”

“When somebody told Mildred no, they weren’t going to take an ad, she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant. Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.

“Nothing stopped Mildred.”

Nothing stopped Hughes either.

“When I was 17 I became a parent. I realized I was on the brink of becoming a black statistic. My son Alfred was the motivation for me to think past myself. It was the defining moment in my life direction because for the first time I had a priority I could not fail. I was like, We’ll be okay, I’m not going to disappoint you, don’t worry about it. It was Alfred who actually kept me going.”

Her first ever radio job was at Omaha’s then black format station, KOWH.

“KOWH fed into my fasciation with having a voice. I think it is truly a blessing to have your voice amplified. I wasn’t even thinking about being an entrepreneur then. I was thinking about being able to express. I wasn’t at an age yet where had come into who I was destined to be.”

She left for D.C. to lecture at Howard University at the invite of noted broadcaster Tony Brown, whom she met in Omaha. It’s then-fledgling commercial radio station, WHUR, made her the city’s first woman general manager.

Leaving home took guts. Staying in D.C. with no family or friends, sleeping on the floor of the radio station and resisting her mother’s long-distance pleas to come back or get a secure government job, showed her resolve.

“Omaha provided me a safe haven. Once in D.C., I had to rely on and call forth everything I had learned in Omaha just to survive and move forward. If I had not left, I probably would not have become a successful entrepreneur because I had a certain comfort level in Omaha. I was the apple of several individuals’ eyes. They saw potential in me, but I think their love and support would not have pushed me forward the way I had to push myself once I moved into a foreign land.”

She feels Nebraska’s extreme weather toughened her.

“It builds a certain strength in you that you may or may not find in other cities.”

If sweltering heat, high winds and subzero cold couldn’t deter her, neither could man-man challenges.

“You learn that determination that you can’t let anything turn you around. When I went to D.C. and realized there weren’t people of color doing what I wanted to do, I just kept my eye on the prize. I refused to let anyone turn me around. When you learn to persevere in all types of elements, then business is really a lot easier for you.”

 

Mildred Brown

 

Brown was her example of activist entrepreneur.

“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. When you’re 10 years old and you’re looking up to this bigger-than-life woman, she was a media mogul in my mind. She had a good looking man and wardrobe and all the trappings.”

Just as Hughes would later help causes in D.C., Brown, she said, “was kind of a one-woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue.”

“She helped a lot of people. My father graduated from college and didn’t have a place to open an office and she opened her lobby for him. He was just one of many. Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.

“She put students through school and raised hell to keep them there. When my mother was short my Duschene tuition, Mildred told them, ‘You’re going to get your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out.’ She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk. She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me.”

Full circle

Howard’s School of Communications is named after Hughes, who never graduated college. Decades after first lecturing there, she’s a lecturer there again today.

“They say I am their most successful graduate who never matriculated. I wasn’t prepared to be the first woman general manager of a radio station in the nation’s capital. That’s why Howard sent me to Harvard to take a six-week course in broadcast management and to the University of Chicago to learn psychographic programming. I went to various seminars and training sessions. Howard literally groomed me. They were proud of the fact I was the first woman in the position they had placed me in “

Hughes readily admits she hasn’t done it by herself.

“I have been blessed by the individuals placed in my life. They sharpened me, prepared me, educated me, schooled me, nurtured me, mentored me. I have been blessed so many times to be in the right place at the right time and with the right people.”

She grew ad revenues and listeners at WHUR. A program she created, “The Quiet Storm,” popularized the urban format nationally. With ex-husband Dewey Hughes she worked wonders at WOL in D.C. After their split, she built Radio One.

Upon arriving in D.C., Hughes found an unlikely ally in Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. She met Graham through Susan Thompson Buffett, the wife of investor Warren Bufffett, and part owner of the paper.

“Susie was staying at the Grahams’ house. At that time Susie was a singer with professional entertainment aspirations and I was her manager. Katharine Graham took an interest in me and because she had this interest in me other people, including the folks at Howard University, embraced me.”

Networking

Hughes parlayed connections to advance herself.

“Part of my innate abilities since childhood has been to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it.”

Her first allegiance was to listeners though. Thus, she lambasted Graham’s Post for unfair portrayals of blacks, even encouraging listeners to burn copies of the paper.

Hughes has succeeded in a male-dominated industry.

“I never thought about being a woman in a male field. First of all. I was black. I’ve never put woman first. I was black first and a woman second. I had a goal I wanted to achieve, an objective that had to be accomplished. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by being the only female.

“I was naive. I really thought there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. Women have made more progress in professional basketball – they own and coach teams – than they have in the broadcasting industry.”

Men have played a vital role in her business success.

The two black partners in Syndicated Communications,  Herbert Wilkins and Terry Jones, loaned her her first million dollars to build Radio One. Wilkins has passed but Jones and his wife Marcella remain close friends.

When things were tough early on, it was Jones who instructed a downcast Hughes to change her mindset.

“He said to me when people ask you how are you doing they can’t be hearing you complaining or saying I don’t know. You’ve got to say it was a great day because the first person that hears the lie is you. Tell yourself your business is doing good. Tell yourself you’re going to make it. Everyone’s going to start agreeing with you. He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, and guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth,” she shared in Omaha.

Friends and family true

Theresa Glass said success has not changed Hughes, who looks keeping it real.

“She’s the kind of friend who’s always your friend and we always can start off where we last left off. I never have to do a whole bunch of catch up with her. We immediately go into friend mode and are able to talk to one another. A lot of times you’ve been away from somebody for a long time or your lives have really shifted and they’re not even close to being the same, and you feel awkward, and that’s not happened for us.”

Hughes acknowledges her success is not hers alone. “I didn’t do it on my own. Right time, right place, right people.” She leans on staff she calls “family.” She believes in the power of prayer she practices daily. She credits her son’s immeasurable contributions.

“Radio One was me. TV One was totally Alfred. He decided he wanted his own path. Our expansion, our going public, all of that, was in fact Alfred. He does the heavy lifting and I get to take all the bows.”

Not every mother-son could make it work.

“Alfred and I had to go to counseling, alright, because one of us was going to die during those early years. It was not happy times – and it was basically my refusal (to relinquish control),” she said at the Hilton.

Alfred Liggins acknowledges their business partnership ultimately worked.

“It was my mother’s willingness to want to see me succeed as a human being and as a business person and unselfish ability to share her journey with me. When it came time to let me fly the plane, she was more than willing to do that.”

He recognizes how special her story is.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons. We didn’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership, so I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Challenges and opportunities 

“Buddy” King. who’s had his own success in satellite radio, is happy to share a KOWH tie with Hughes.

“I’ve always admired Cathy. We KOWH alums are all proud of her success because her success shines light on what we did in Omaha.”

King further admires Radio One continuing to thrive in an increasingly unstable broadcast environment.

“iHeart media and Cumulus, two of the largest broadcast owners in the country, are both in bankruptcy, but Cathy is still chugging along. Her son has done an excellent job since making it a publicly-traded company. As the stock market fluctuates, they’ve able to survive.”

Diversification into online services and, more recently, the gaming industry, has kept Urban One fluid.

The changing landscape extends to Me Too movement solidarity around survivors of sexual harassment in the entertainment field.

“Was I subjected to it? Yes, absolutely,” Hughes said, “and I’m so glad women are stepping forward. Now we have a voice. The reality is we need more than a voice, we need to have action. Just talking about it doesn’t change it. I mean, how long have black folks talked about disparity and a whole host of things.

“It’s great that women are speaking out but we have to put pressure on individuals and on systems. Wherever we can find an opening. we must apply pressure to change it. Let’s start with education.”

She despairs over what she perceives as the dismantling of public education and how it may further erode stagnant income of blacks and the lack of inherited wealth among black families. She shared how “disturbed” she was by how Omaha’s North 24th Street has declined from the Street of Dreams she once knew.

 

 

Street Dedication for Cathy Hughes

Mrs. Marcella Jones, Alfred Liggins, III and his mother Cathy Hughes

 

 

Black media

Voices like hers can often only be found in black media.

“Black radio is still the voice of the community. Next to the black church, black-owned media is the most important institution in our community,” she said.

She embraces technology opening avenues and fostering change, but not at the expense of truth.

“I pray that truth prevails in all of these advancements we’re making. I see a world of opportunity opening, particularly for young people. I’m so impressed with this young generation behind the millennials. These kids are awesome because they’re not interested in just celebrity status. They’re interested in real change and I think the technology will be a definite part of that and I think with it comes a different level of responsibility for media than we’ve had in the past.

“Information is power. Mildred Brown understood that and it wasn’t just about a business for her – it was about a community service.”

Hughes credits an unlikely source with unifying African-Americans today.

“President Trump has single-handedly reignited activism, particularly in the black community. That did not occur in the Clinton administration, nor the Obama administration. But Trump has got people riled up, which is good. He has made people so mad that people are willing to do things, voice their opinion, and that’s why black radio is so important. You are able to say and hear things that you couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The Omaha Star is in its eighth decade. Hughes maintains its survival is “absolutely critical – because again it’s the voice of the people,” adding, “It’s our story from our perspective.” She still reads every issue. “It’s how I know what’s going on. The first thing I do is read Ernie Chambers’ editorial comments.”

Hughes is adamant blacks must retain control over their own message.

“You cannot ever depend on a culture that enslaved you to accurately portray you. That just cannot happen. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverer’s experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate.

“The reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons.”

Yet, she feels blacks do not support black media or other black business segments as much as they should.

A challenge she addressed in Omaha is black media not getting full value from advertisers.

“My son and I are not going for that. We want full value for our black audience and we insist on that with advertisers. I learned that from Mildred Brown. She did not allow y’alll to be discounted because it was a black weekly newspaper. She wanted the black readership of the Omaha Star to have the same value as a white readership to the Omaha World-Herald.

“I learned at the Omaha Star you don’t take a discount for being black.”

 

 

Still learning 

Six decades into her media career and Hughes said, “I’m still learning. I’m not totally prepared for some of the responsibilities and charges I’m being blessed with now. Like I’m just learning how to produce a movie (her debut project, Media, premiered on TV One in 2017). I want to learn how to direct a movie. I want to learn how to do a series. Thank God we went into cable, which has given me an opportunity to learn the visual side.”

She’s searching for a new project to produce or direct.

“I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. I am just so thankful to the individuals in my life who have loved and nurtured me that I keep acquiring new skill sets at this age. I’m still growing and learning. which is kind of my hobby.”

Hughes is often approached about a documentary or book on her life. If there’s to be a book, she said, “I don’t want someone else interpreting who I am. I don’t want someone else telling my story from their perspective. I want to tell my own story.”

 

 

 

 

Lasting impact and legacy

Her staff is digitally archiving her career. There’s a lot to capture, including her Omaha story.

“I thank Omaha. Nothing’s better than making your mark in your hometown.”

Getting all those accolades back here is not her style.

“In Omaha, we just don’t get carried away with a whole bunch of fanfare and hero-worshiping. Again, it’s how I grew up. That’s our way of life in Omaha and I thank God for that because it’s made a big difference. It’s a whole different mentality and way of life quite frankly.”

Omaha’s impact on her is incalculable.

“It touched me probably a lot more deeply and seriously than I realized for many decades. When you’re trying to build your business you don’t have a lot of time to reflect on how did I get here and the people who influenced me. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me and what a positive influence Omaha has been on me.”

“Buddy” King said he always knew if from afar.

“Even when she was a young single parent, Cathy was a fighter. It all to me comes back to her Omaha roots.”

Though Alfred Liggins and his mom have been back several times, with this 2018 visit, he said, “you feel like you finally made it and made good and you’re making you’re community proud.”

“It’s about meaning and legacy. That’s why this is hugely different. It really is the culmination of a journey I’ve shared with my mother trying to elevate ourselves and in the process elevating the community from which we came. I’m proud to have been part of what my mother embarked on and I feel like I am being recognized alongside her.

“And it is a deserving honor for her. She’s got guts, grit and she still has a ton of energy. She always gives me lots of praise and lots of love – until I do something she doesn’t like. But it has kept me on the up-and-up and to have my nose to the grindstone.”

At the close of her Empowerment Network talk, Hughes articulated why coming back to acclaim meant so much.

“I think Omaha teaches you to best your best and practices tough love. If you have the nerve to leave here and go someplace else, you better hope you do good because if you come home, you don’t want to hear (about returning a failure). But it’s really love telling you, You should have done better, you should have been more persistent.

“That whole village concept sometimes is not comfortable but it’s so productive because it pushes you to best your best. It teaches you that when you come home one day … they may hang a sign and name a boulevard in your honor.”

As she told a reporter earlier, “My picture’s on the floor of the Press Club, okay  It don’t get no better than that.”

Visit https://urban1.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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