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Omaha Press Club to salute media mogul Cathy Hughes


Omaha Press Club to salute media mogul Cathy Hughes

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraskans are about to get an education about one of their own they should know more about and embrace as one of the state’s greatest ever exports but very few outside of Omaha’s African-American community do. This exemplary product is Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder and owner of two major media networks, Radio One and TV One, that she grew into African-American market empires. Hers is an entrepreneurial success story unlike few others and one that transcends color and gender. Think Oprah Winfrey but only more niche and you have an idea of just how big a deal she is and just what a footprint she has in a segment of the national media marketplace. Her personal net worth is estimated at half a billion dollars. Get the picture? She’s about to come on your radar in a big way, perhaps for the first time, because of a series of events feting and featuring her in her hometown the week of May 14-20.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of her before or why there haven’t been things named after her before, it may say something about how this predominantly white state has not exactly gone out of its way to recognize her or any other woman of color. As a whole, Omaha’s been guilty of the same, The festivities being planned around her are largely the effort of the African-American community here, though a broad spectrum of city officials and movers and shakers will be present for the street renaming ceremony and the Omaha Press Club Face on the Barroom Floor roast in her honor (see about the Press Club event by clicking below). Her omission, until now, as a generally known and acknowledged Nebraska Great is all the more vexing because she got her media start in Omaha, counted as her mentor Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and has retained very close ties to the city and the black community. She has also been very generous with her time with this reporter and others from here and with other members of the community here. I will be doing a whole new round of writing about Cathy and her business and life journey in the coming months.

Oh, by the way, her mother Helen Jones Woods is a great story in herself as a member of the famed International Sweethearts of Rhythm during the big band swing era.

For those of you playing catch-up when it comes to Cathy Hughes, here are links to some stories I have done about her or that have extensively quoted her:

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/radio-one-queen-…-keeping-it-real

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/04/11/the-omaha-star-c…ack-woman-legacy

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/08/11/native-omaha-day…ng-like-no-other

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/04/news-of-omaha-st…ic-papers-future/

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/04/native-omahans-t…n-their-hometown

Here’s a link to my story about Cathy’s mother, Helen Jones Woods, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm:

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/17/

 

The Omaha Press Club
Celebrates Its 157th
Face on the Barroom Floor 


 
Cathy Hughes

Friday, May 18, 2018

5:30 – 6:30 p.m.

Cocktail Reception

6:30 – 7:30 p.m.

Dinner

Hors d’oeuvres
Potato Leek Smoked Salmon with Goat Cheese and Bacon
Parmesan Onion Canapé
Salad

OPC’s Signature Thunderbird Salad

Entrée
OPC Tenderloin Filet Maytag Bleu and Béarnaise
Gouda & Roasted Twice-Baked Potato
Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus
Dessert
OPC’s Signature Bavarian Chocolate Mousse Gateau Riche
7:30 p.m.

The Roast featuring:

Roasters
Johnny Rodgers, 1972 Heisman Trophy winner,
founder/CEO, Johnny Rodgers Youth Foundation
and Face on the Barroom Floor (No. 102, July 2005) — emcee
Theresa Glass Union, AT&T, Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services (retired)
Elmer J. Crumbley, educational consultant/Minnesota Humanities Center, educator, Omaha Public Schools,
former principal, Skinner Magnet School (retired)
Dr. Blandina Rose Willis, educator/psychologist,
president, Humanistic Solutions, LLC
Al Goodwin, economic development director, Omaha Economic Development Corp. (retired)
Face Reveal

Artist Jim Horan

Dinner: $50 for Omaha Press Club members;

$60 for nonmembers

To RSVP for dinner:
Call the Omaha Press Club at 402-345-8008,

Email


(If you have special dietary needs, please notify the Omaha Press Club
when you make your reservation.)
Reservations must be accompanied by OPC member number or credit card.

Cancellations require a 48-hour notice.

Omaha Press Club
First National Center, 22nd Floor (adjoining the DoubleTree Hotel)
1620 Dodge Street, Omaha, Nebraska 68102-1593
Twitter: @omahapressclub
Parking Available in the Central City Parking Garage
(the garage just west of the First National Bank Building)

 

Free parking for OPC members in the Central City Garage from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.;

discounted parking available for nonmembers with ticket validation.
Bring your Central City Garage ticket with you to the club.
(No validated parking available in the garage attached
to the DoubleTree Hotel; however, self-pay parking is available)

 

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CIVIL RIGHTS: STANDING UP FOR WHAT’S RIGHT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

May 7, 2015 1 comment

This is an excerpt from one of two iBooks I authored for the Making Invisible History Visible project through the Omaha Public Schools.  It was part of a larger Nebraska Department of Education digial publishing initiative.  Working with teachers and illustrators we looked at sspects of African-American history with local storylines.  My two 3rd grade books deal with the Great Migration and Civil Rights.  The excerpt here is from the Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference book that looks at the movement through the prism of the peaceful demonstrations that integrated the popular Omaha amusement attraction, Peony Park.

Each book is used in the classroom as a teaching aid. To get the full experience of the book you need to experience it on a device because there are many interactive elements built in.You can access the iBook version at:

http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/teacherauthors.html

 

You can download a PDF version at:

 http://www.education.ne.gov/nebooks/ebooks/peony_park.pdf

You can access my post about the Great Migration book I did at:

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=great+migration

 

NOTE: More Great Migration stories can be found on my blog.

Here is some background on the project I participated in:

During the summer of 2013, eight Omaha Public Schools teachers each developed an iBook on a topic of Omaha and Nebraska history as it relates to African American History. The four 3rd grade books are: Then and Now: A Look at People in Your Neighborhood; Our City, Our Culture; Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference; and The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home is Where the Heart is. The four 4th grade books are: Legends of the Name: Buffalo Soldiers in Nebraska; African American Pioneers; Notable Nebraskans; and WWII: Double Victory. Each book was written by a local Omaha author, and illustrations were created by a local artist. Photographs, documents, and other artifacts included in the book were provided by local community members and through partnership with the Great Plains Black History Museum. These books provide supplemental information on the role of African Americans in Omaha and Nebraska history topics. It is important to integrate this material in order to expand students’ cultural understanding, and highlight all the historical figures that have built this state. Each book allows students to go beyond the content through analysis activities using photos, documents, and other artifacts.Through these iBooks, students will experience history and its connections to their own cultures and backgrounds.

 

 

 

Peony_Park

 

CIVIL RIGHTS:

STANDING UP FOR WHAT’S RIGHT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

©AUTHOR: LEO ADAM BIGA

©ILLUSTRATOR: WESTON THOMSON

 

INTRODUCTION

Imagine wanting to go swimming on a hot summer’s day at a big public pool. You arrive there with the simple expectation of laying out in the sun and cooling off in the refreshing water. But when you show up at the front gate ready to enter the pool and have fun you are turned away because you are black.

Naturally, your feelings are hurt. You’re probably angry and confused. How unfair that you cannot go swimming where everyone else can just because of your skin color. “What can be done about this?” you wonder.

It may surprise you to know this actually happened in Omaha, Nebraska, and the young people who were denied admission decided to do something about it. Some of them were Omaha Public Schools students. In 1963, they organized protests that forced the swimming pool owners to let everyone swim there.

 

Media

 

INJUSTICE

How were people’s civil rights violated at Peony Park?

There was a time in America when black people and other racial minorities were denied basic human rights because of the color of their skin. Racism and discrimination made life difficult for African Americans. Often, they had to use separate facilities, such as black- only water fountains, or take their meals in the back of restaurants. Even something as ordinary as a swimming pool could be off-limits. Segregation in all aspects of daily life emphasized that African Americans were not equal and this system could be enforced with violence. If a black person tried to take a sip of water at a fountain, eat at a counter reserved for whites, or sit in the front of a bus, they could be arrested or attacked.

The system of segregation in America was called “Jim Crow.” In the South, Jim Crow segregation laws severely restricted blacks from using public facilities. But these laws were in place all over the nation. These harsh measures were put in place after the end of slavery. Though African Americans were now citizens, Jim Crow laws made black people second-class citizens, denied opportunities open to everyone else.

African Americans experienced racial discrimination in Omaha. A popular amusement park that used to be here, Peony Park, did not let blacks use its big outdoor pool. Unfair practices like that sparked the civil rights movement. People of all races and ethnicities joined together to march and demonstrate against inequality. They advocated blacks be given equal rights in voting, housing, jobs, education, and recreation.

 

Classroom

 

DOING THE RIGHT THING

Following World War II protestors with the De Porres Club in Omaha peacefully demonstrated against local businesses that refused to serve or hire blacks. Members of the De Porres Club included the people of Omaha’s African American community, college students from Creighton University, and more. They were active from about 1947 to the early 1960s.

In 1963, members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council, some still high school teenagers, decided to challenge Peony Park and its racist policies. “Activism was in its heyday, activism was alive and well. Every community of black folks around the country was involved in some initiative and that was the Omaha initiative,” said Youth Council Vice President Cathy Hughes. Though only 16 at the time, Hughes was a veteran civil rights worker. As a little girl she carried picket signs with her parents when they participated in De Porres Club protests.

The Youth Council decided to protest at Peony Park after one of their members, a young black woman, was turned away along with her little sister. “She was told she couldn’t get into the pool,” recalled Archie Godfrey, the then-18-year-old Youth Council President. “It happened the same day we were having a meeting. She came to the meeting like she always did and said, ‘Guess what happened to me?’ And here was an issue that paralleled what was going on nationally.’ What do we do? All we knew is our member got rejected from Peony Park and we were going to make it right, and that’s how that thing got started.”

Godfrey and his peers closely monitored the civil rights movement and saw an opportunity to do here what was being done in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were waging nonviolent social actions. Omaha Youth Council members had trained in nonviolent protest methods at NAACP regional events. Godfrey said, “We decided, ‘Well, let’s do what they taught us. We’ll test it.'” And they did.

 

Final_Pool2

 

STAGING THE PROTEST

Media played an important role in documenting the protests

The Youth Council activists came up with a plan for their protest. First, members tried to gain admission to the pool. Each time they were told it was full, even though whites were let in. Members next removed the ignition keys from their cars to block the entrance and exit. “That was the beginning of the demonstration,” said Godfrey. “We were nonviolent, we didn’t go out and shout and scream at them, we didn’t throw bricks, we didn’t spit, we didn’t do anything but demonstrate for the next two weeks.” Protesters also made sure the media was present to document their activities.

The group sang freedom songs to relieve the tension from counter- protestors, who were opposed to the civil rights movement. The Youth Council was aware things could turn violent as they did down South. “One of the reasons why we sung is because of how stressful and explosive a situation like that could be,” said Godfrey. “The singing of the civil rights songs as a group was like a medicine that kept us bound and understanding we were not alone, that there was unity. By singing to the top of our voices ‘We Shall Overcome,’ we didn’t hear the words that came from across the street from people calling us nasty names.”

He said the human chain they formed with clasped arms outside the front gate was only as strong as its weakest link. They needed solidarity to keep their cool. “If one of us had lost self control and got mad and went across the street and hit one of the those kids all hell would have broke out and it would have killed everything,” Godfrey observed. Cathy Hughes said all their training paid off. “We were disciplined, we were strategic.” No violence ever erupted. No arrests were made.

 

Protest_Signs

 

WINNING THE FIGHT

For a time the Malec family that owned and operated the park resisted making any changes. But after losing business, being challenged with lawsuits, and getting negative publicity, they opened the pool to everyone. The youth protestors won.

The success of the demonstration raised interest in the Youth Council. “We went from a few dozen members to 300 members that summer,” Godfrey said, “because of the attention, the excitement and people pent up wanting to do something like people were doing all over the country. We jumped on everything that was wrong that summer.” He said the Council staged protests at restaurants and recreation sites. “Each one opened its doors after we started or even threatened to demonstrate, that’s how effective it was.”

The events of that summer 50 years ago helped shape Godfrey. The lesson that youth can change things for the better has stayed with him. “I’ve been an activist and politically involved all the rest of my life,” he said. Cathy Hughes said the experience “instilled in me a certain level of fearlessness and purpose and accomplishment that I carried with me for the rest of my life,” adding, “It taught me the lesson that there’s power in unity.” She has never hesitated to speak out against injustice since then.

Demonstrations like these helped push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which put into place many safeguards to prevent discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity. Today, people of any color or background can go anywhere they choose. That freedom, however, was hard earned by people like Archie Godfrey and Cathy Hughes who stood up to speak out against wrong.

ACTIVITIES AND QUESTIONS

ACT IT OUT

1.Describe how the Youth Council activists staged their protest of Peony Park.

2.How would you feel if you were told you couldn’t do something like go to a park or go inside your favorite store? What would you do about it?

3.Peony Park is only one example of a place where segregation occurred. Find other examples of segregation. Where did it happen? Who was involved? When did it happen? What did people do to end this segregation?

DESIGN A MONUMENT

You will design a monument that will recognize the accomplishments of the individuals who helped to desegregate Peony Park. Included with your design should be some words telling people what your monument represents.

QUESTIONS

1. WHY DID PEONY PARK WANT TO KEEP AFRICAN AMERICANS OUT?

2. WHY DID THE LIFEGUARD THINK THIS WOULD BACKFIRE?

3. THIS LIFEGUARD RISKED LOSING HIS JOB FOR SOMETHING HE BELIEVED. DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD DO THE SAME IN HIS POSITION? WHY OR WHY NOT?

4. THIS ARTICLE USES THE WORD “HYSTERICAL.” WHAT DOES IT MEAN? WHY IS FEAR OF AN INTEGRATED POOL CALLED “HYSTERICAL”? USE IT IN A SENTENCE.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based author- journalist-blogger best known for his cultural writing-reporting about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. His book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film is the first comprehensive treatment of the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Biga’s peers have recognized his work at the local, state and national levels. To sample more of his writing visit, leoadambiga.com or http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga

MEET THE ILLUSTRATOR

Weston Thomson is a multidisciplinary artist and non-profit arts organization director living in Omaha, Nebraska. His work ranges from graphite, ink, and acrylic illustrations to 3D printed sculptures.

A NOTE FROM THE TEACHER

My name is Russ Nelsen. I teach 3rd grade at Standing Bear Elementary. I enjoyed taking what the author and illustrator did and putting it into an iBook! Hopefully this book was educational and fun!

The Omaha Star celebrates 75 years of black woman legacy

April 11, 2013 2 comments

If you’re not from Omaha or you don’t live here then you may be surprised to learn this nondescript Midwesten city is the home to a sizable African American community with a rich history.  It may further surprise you to know that a significant figure in the American black press of the mid to late 20th century was a transplanted Omahan and a woman to boot, Mildren Brown, who founded, published and edited the Omaha Star, which became the leading and eventually only black owned and operated newspaper serving the community.  As my story below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) reveals, Brown heavily influenced two black women who became media titans:  Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes.  When Brown died in 1989 the paper passed onto to her niece Marguerita Washington, thus continuing the publication’s black woman legacy.

NOTE: The story posted here is a longer version than the story that appears in The Reader.

 

 

Mildred Brown

 

 

The Omaha Star celebrates 75 years of black woman legacy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Origially appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In this fluid transmedia age an old warhorse of a newspaper, the Omaha Star, celebrates 75 years of continuous publication at an April 19 Scholarship Banquet benefiting the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center.

The Star may not be known for exceptional reporting but it does own a groundbreaking gender and activist lineage. Its late publisher, Mildred Brown, was among very few women, white or black, to run a newspaper of its size and reach. She and her first husband co-launched the Star in 1938 though Brown was the real driving force behind it. Within a few years she divorced and from that point on served as sole publisher and editor until her death in 1989.

A black woman at the head of a successful media enterprise inspired Chicago Crusader publisher-editor Dorothy Leavell, the featured speaker at the April gala, and Radio One chairperson Cathy Hughes.

Though several years younger, Leavell’s career paralleled Brown’s when her first husband, Balm Leavell Jr., who founded the Crusader, died and she took over as a young single mother. She expanded the Crusader empire to reach hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Leavell’s also served as president of the National Newspapers Publishers Association, a trade organization representing hundreds of African American newspapers, and chairperson of Amalgamated Publishers, a company thats sells national advertising to black papers.

 

 

 

Dorothy Leavell

 

 

As a fledgling journalist Leavell pattered herself after the “strong black woman” she saw in Brown. She admired the way Brown handled herself amid their mostly male peer publisher colleagues.

“She had a profound affect on me because…the men would try to discount you but they couldn’t discount Mildred. She was a strong personality, She would stand her ground. I always say, Mildred put the ‘n’ in nerve. Mildred was no-nonsense with those guys.

“Seeing how she would not let them relegate her to a female role was certainly an influence on me and as a result when I became a publisher I insisted I be accorded the same courtesy and respect accorded the males. I would net let anyone take me lightly because they did not take Mildred lightly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The history of the Star, located in a former mortuary at 2216 North 24th St., is bound up in the story of Brown. The dynamic entrepreneur became synonymous with the paper for her front page editorials, out-front activism, personal style and legendary salesmanship. She often sported a fresh carnation pinned to her shoulder, a hat crowning her head and fitted gloves over her hands,

The Alabama native and former educator migrated north with her then-husband, Shirl Edward Gilbert, a pharmacist. The couple started a newspaper, the Silent Messenger. in Sioux City, Iowa. In 1937 they were recruited to Omaha to work for the city’s then-black newspaper, The Guide, whose co-publisher, Charles Galloway, Brown remained friends with even after she quit to start the Star.

The Star chronicled black people’s lives through the Depression, World War II, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement and America‘s changing face post-Vietnam and Watergate. When North 24th St. burned in outbreaks of civil disobedience this militant who didn’t believe in “breaking glass” called for both calm and redress.

She filled her paper with aspirational stories and advocacy journalism that sought to uplift her community and expose injustice. Its banner motto reflected her own ideals:

“Dedicated to the service of the people that no good cause shall lack a champion and that evil shall not thrive unopposed.”

She printed the names of businesses that refused to hire or serve blacks. She carried guest editorials by then-Nebraska Urban League and future National Urban League head Whitney Young. She supported the Omaha civil rights groups the DePorres Club and the 4CL. She observed, “This paper broke down discrimination in this town. They called us troublemakers nothing bit troublemakers. Oh, I’m a militant, always have been.”

Upon her death her niece, former educator Marguerita Washington, assumed command of the Star and she’s still in charge today, giving the publication the distinction of being the nation’s longest running newspaper led exclusively by black women.

 

 

 

Marguerita Washington

 

 

Omaha native Cathy Hughes, who sold Star ads in the 1960s, appreciates the paper’s “black woman legacy.” Hughes built a media empire as a single woman. Her son Alfred C. Liggins III succeeded her as Radio One CEO but she wishes she also had a daughter to pass things onto.

“I love my son. I can’t tell you how much I thank God and appreciate the fact he embraced my vision and followed in my footsteps but my only regret is that I didn’t have a daughter to go along with him because I really would have liked to continue this legacy under the banner of female leadership.”

Hughes knew many sides of Brown. who was in her life from the time she was a little girl. Brown was a friend of her parents, William Alfred Woods and Helen Jones Woods. When her father graduated from Creighton University Brown let him office inside the Star.

Asked to assess the influence Brown and the Star had on her, Hughes said, “It’s why you have me on the phone now as the founder and chairperson of Radio One, which is the parent corporation for TV One, Interactive One, Reach Media, Distribution One. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. 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.”

Seeing a smart, bold black woman totally in charge made an impression on the young Hughes, who says she naturally looked up to “this woman whose personality and physical presence were bigger than life,” adding, “I can still smell the carnations to this day. Every Monday a big box of carnations that went straight into the refrigerator was delivered because she wore a fresh carnation bouquet every day of the week. She wore absolutely beautiful hats, matching outfits, shoes to match the outfits, fresh flowers. She lived in a beautiful apartment behind her business.”

Drivers chauffeured her around in a big shiny sedan.

 

 

Cathy Hughes

 

 

“She had a good looking husband (Brown’s common-law second husband Max Brownell), she had a wardrobe, she had all the trappings of a media mogul. To me the Star was a conglomerate. She was NBC, ABC, and CBS combined in my mind,” says Hughes.

“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. You had really made it when you made the cover of the Omaha Star. Remember, during these days there were no blacks on Omaha TV, there was no black radio, the (Omaha) World-Herald basically covered crime in North Omaha. There were no alternatives, there was no other place to turn for information about you and your organization, you and your family, you and your neighborhood, you and your existence in Omaha, Neb. other than the Omaha Star.”

Hughes, who’s built a corporate dynasty in the face of sexism and racism, was impressed by the way Brown’s force of nature personality smashed barriers. She recalls her “dogged determination,” adding, “When somebody told Mildred no, that they weren’t going to take an ad, she was going to write you up and that write-up would become public record. Mildred combined her activism with her marketing and salesmanship…When people said no to Mildred 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.

Marguerita Washington marveled at her aunt’s drive.

“She wouldn’t give up. She was very persistent. I went with her many times to a business place where she would be told the person in charge was not available. A lot of times the boss told their secretary, ‘Just tell her I’m not here.’ Of course, she knew he was, so she would say, ‘Well, I’ll wait on him,’ and she would sit there in the lobby until finally the guy would come out and say, ‘Oh, Mildred, what do you want?’ Nine chances out of 10 she got the sell.

“She was better at the game then they were.”

Star contributing writer Walter Brooks, the 2013 Omaha Star Legacy Award honoree, doubled as Brown’s driver. Going on sales calls with her he saw her operate at parties and meetings, working the room with everyone from small business owners to corporate. He notes in a video interview:

“Mildred Brown was liked by those people. They liked her style. They respected her because they knew quite honestly nobody else could have done what she did. When you think about starting that paper in 1938 and never quitting, never backing down, always moving forward, and then the role of course that the paper played during the civil rights era, and just the fact she was so smooth and tough.”

 

 

 

Mildred Brown and Hubert Humphrey

 

 

Brooks saw an assertive woman supremely sure of herself. “Mrs. Brown was fearless. She was not intimidated. When she asked for an ad it wasn’t hat in hand, mealy-mouthed, please-Mr.-Charlie, it was her being received as an equal.”

Hughes says Brown was proud of leading a newspaper that at the time of her death was half a century old and she imagines if Brown were alive today she would be thrilled it’s still going strong.

“I think her crowning glory was the newspaper and its ability to continue – the longevity.”

The Star may not be the primary news source it once was for most readers but outside Revive! magazine it offers Omaha’s only black on black print perspective. It maintains a black press tradition emphasizing positive news, conveying black pride stories of individual accomplishments and informing readers of community events, as well as examining issues of inequity.

Brooks says before today’s multimedia platforms the Star was Omaha’s only reliable media source for what was happening in the black community.

“If it wasn’t in the Star in many ways it didn’t exist,” he says. “It’s primary value has always been as the one outlet we could count on to represent the black community.”

In a documentary tribute to Brown the late Omaha musician Preston Love Sr. articulated what her paper meant to its readership.

“She gave every little person on the street a shot at getting some recognition. Families were publicized for constructive things they did and successes. It’d have the picture of some young man or woman on the front page who’d got their master’s degree and that was important to people. Everybody likes publicity. If they tell you differently, they’re lying.

“People who never had their picture in the paper for anything else, there they were in the new dress they got for the dance or the affair, the new tuxedo for the guys. We were impoverished people and we had no other means of getting recognition, especially in this town.”

Its interest in the whole gamut of African American life provided fairly comprehensive coverage of goings-on in the black community.

“And because it goes back eight decades it is actually an historical repository because no one else was consistently capturing events and things taking place in the black community week after week,” notes Brooks.

Now that the Star’s archives are being digitized a new resource will soon be accessible online to anyone researching people, places and events covered by the paper over much of its history.

Today, the black owned and operated weekly remains a voice for a community not always well represented by traditional mainstream media. Subscriptions and advertisements are the lifeblood of any print publication and Brown scored ads like nobody else, sometimes using moral indignation to guilt whites into buying space.

“Especially with a tough customer or potential customer she would try to appeal to his or her conscience,” says Washington.

“She had a way of relating to business people to get them, sometimes with a little arm twisting, to advertise in her newspaper,” says Leavell.

Getting people to do the right thing, whether buying ads in her paper or giving blacks equal opportunity, extended beyond the office. Brown was part of a coterie of black professionals, including Cathy Hughes’ parents, who shared similar aspirational-activist values and put them into practice.

 

 

 

Mildred Brown with Father John Markoe (seated)

 

 

“It was less than a dozen of them and they really formed this close friendship and partnership in so many areas – business, education, civil rights – and in that mixture my father and Mildred became best friends,” says Hughes. “Mildred Brown was a member of an organization my parents were members of, the DePorres Club, that challenged Omaha institutions that practiced overt discrimination.”

The DePorres Club’s founder, the later Rev. John Markoe, a Jesuit priest at Creighton University, was befriended by Brown after his civil rights work made him persona non grata at the school. She allowed the interracial club to meet at the Star. The paper often printed the minutes of the club’s meetings along with listings of its social action activities.

As a girl Hughes joined her parents and Brown at demonstrations.

“I carried my first picket sign when I was around 4 or 5 years old. I grew up with community service and activism.”

She says her parents and Brown “imbued” her with the mandate “to improve the community” by standing up and speaking out for right.

Brown’s Star promoted aspirational pursuits. She often included news about herself, such as meeting visiting dignitaries or receiving some award, because she enjoyed the attention and the affirmation it provided.

Washington says, “There wasn’t a camera she didn’t like.” Some readers disapproved of Brown’s frequent appearances in the paper but Washington says, “she didn’t care.” Besides, she adds, “her being in there a lot of times was noteworthy, like when she met presidents and what have you. She hoped people would be inspired.”

Preston Love Sr. was Brown’s contemporary and sometime employee. He sold advertising off and on there for 26 years, His rise to prominence in music paralleled Brown’s in journalism. They maintained a mutual respect. After she passed he wrote, “It’s the end of an era. The paper was the center of the black community in many ways…Mildred Brown and the Omaha Star have been the most potent forces for the progress and advancement of blacks in Omaha and in this state.”

Though some felt she didn’t go far enough, others felt she did all she could.

“She was definitely considered a conservative by the Black Panther Party,” says Brooks, a one-time Panther member. He says she refrained from “the more radical hard push back approach” and instead focused on “collaboration and coalition.” Practical realities of the time constrained Brown from being too harsh in attacking racism.

Love said that “she was militant in that she was persistent in fighting for the cause” but “she wasn’t a firebrand,” adding, “What needed to be done she did it through the medium of this newspaper.”

Dorothy Leavell leaves no doubt about Brown’s activism.

“Milldred was just really an unusual woman. She was a very strong militant activist during the days when women were thought of as at home taking care of children. Mildred was a fighter who fought hard for the rights of blacks.”

Even near the end Brooks says Brown still “was totally hands on…totally in charge. Nothing went in that paper she didn’t sign off on. She was still much willing to say, ‘No, I don’t like that.’ Still very much focused on the political bent that she wanted the paper to be. She was like, ‘Yeah, I know it’s the 1980s now but this is what has worked, this is what the people want it to be, this is want the advertisers want to see.’ It was very much, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That was very much I feel her attitude.

“Not only was it hard to argue with that, but there’s the door, if you really just have a problem with this, hey, thank you for your service…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editorially, Brooks says he was given great freedom by her and is given even more by Washington, who’s serializing his new book about the state of black America. Outside of the late Charles B. Washington, who got his start in journalism under Brown, the Star’s not groomed any black journalists, though Washington says the Mildred B. Brown Memorial Study Center and its Junior Journalist Program is an attempt to do that.

Margeuerita Washington says that because “it’s a different day” than when her aunt ran the paper she’s given space to more militant voices her aunt would not have accommodated, including former Omaha activist Matthew Stelly and Neb. state senator Ernie Chambers.

The opinion pieces by Chambers can be particularly controversial and that’s why Brown shied away giving him a forum during her reign.

“She was afraid he might turn away some of her advertisers,” Washington says. “When I took over I felt like, ‘Well, give him a chance, and if he goes too far out on a limb. I can always tone him down some. It’s worked out fine. Only once have I had to tell him to cool it…to find another topic.”

She believes the Star remains a relevant voice today. “I think the main thing I’m proud of is this paper has really become the people’s paper. It is a sounding board. We have a number of local columnists. It’s the community’s paper with a diversity of voices.” Ad revenues and circulation numbers are way down from its heyday and took more hits during the recession but Washington says the paper is slowly “building back.”

Hughes says the Star has a vital role to play in the same way black magazines, radio stations, TV networks and websites do.

“Next to the black church black-owned media is the most important institution in our community. 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 deliverers’ experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate. But 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. I think the black community just intuitively understands that.

“Information is power. I think Mildred Brown understood that. It wasn’t just about a business for her, it was about a community service.”

The clout and wealth Brown earned put her in position to help others and she did.

“She was instrumental in helping St. Benedict the Moore Catholic Church build the Bryant Center,” says Hughes. “She was kind of a one woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue in indigenous communities. She helped a lot of people. If your husband was beating you, you ran to the Omaha Star. Mildred would give you some money, help you check into a hotel. Your child got arrested, it was Mildred people came to asking, ‘Can you loan me $150 to get my child out of jail?’

“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.”

Hughes says Brown also assisted young people getting their education.

“She’d put them through school in a minute, go up to Creighton raising hell, going up to Duchesne (Academy) when my mother didn’t have the tuition and telling them, ‘You just wait, we’re going to get you your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out of school.'”

Washington says her aunt sponsored many college students. After her death a Creighton University journalism scholarship was established in her name. It goes to black students from Omaha area schools.

“She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk,” says Hughes.

“She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it.”

After her father died Hughes says Brown drew closer to her. “I think I was that connection for her. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me right up to the time she passed.”

The legacy of the Star is felt by Washington, who is childless and has no plans to hand it off to a relative. Her will dictates the paper will be sold upon her death. That is unless, she says, “some dashing young person comes along who I think this is just the right fit to carry it on.”

She holds out little hope someone will, in effect, endow the paper’s future operations.

“No Warren Buffett is going to come and help us,” she says, referring to the billionaire’s recent World-Herald purchase. “Unlikely.”

She intends continuing as publisher-editor for the forseeable future. “I’m in good health and I’ve still got some energy left.” A project she’d like to see happen is the renovation and expansion of the space-starved Star offices.

Tickets to the April 19 Star gala at the Downtown Hilton, 1001 Cass St., may be ordered at 402-346-4041, ext. 4 or 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real: Native Omahan created Urban Radio format

April 29, 2010 3 comments

Microphone (MXL 990)

 

 

UPDATE: On February 17 Cathy Hughes received the NAACP Chairman’s Award, joining some distinguished company in the process.  As the NAACP website reports, the award is chosen by chairman Roslyn M. Brock in recognition of special achievement and distinguished public service.  Past honorees include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, Tyler Perry, Former Vice President Al Gore and Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, Aretha Franklin, Bono, then-Senator Barack Obama, The Dave Matthews Band, Danny Glover, and Aaron McGruder.

“I am thrilled to offer Cathy Hughes the NAACP Chairman’s Award,” says Brock. “ This recognition is long overdue for her accomplishments as a trailblazer in the media industry.  As the founder of Radio One and TV One, an advocate for small business entrepreneurship, and philanthropist, Cathy Hughes reminds us that collectively and as individuals, we can make a difference.  Her presence at the Image Awards continues the NAACP’s quest to celebrate and uplift individuals who model principles of hard work, perseverance and community empowerment.”

“This is the most humbling honor to ever be bestowed on me,” says Hughes. “Those who have received the Chairman’s Award in the past are counted among the very best that America has ever produced, and I am honored and very humbled to be included in their ranks.”

– – –

I remember reading something about Cathy Hughes somewhere years ago and after digesting the fact this African-American woman was a major media mogul born and raised in my hometown my next reaction was: Why didn’t I know about her before?  I mean, she’s a big deal, and her hometown didn’t seem to acknowledge or celebrate her success the way you would expect. One of the nice things about what I do as a freelance journalist is getting the opportunity here and there to rectify such perceived wrongs or at least to put my own spin on someone’s story and perhaps introduce a whole new segment of the population to the subject.  That is precisely what I did in the following profile I did on Cathy Hughes for The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper in 2005.

I share the story here simply because hers is a story that cannot be told too often.

 

Radio One queen Cathy Hughes rules by keeping it real:

Native Omahan created Urban Radio format

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

The cool hip-hop culture is driving the urban — read: black — entertainment industry explosion. Radio’s no exception. Omaha’s Hot 107.7 FM loudly carries the banner here for urban radio’s mix of rap, hip hop, soul and R&B. Contemporary rock KQCH 94.1-FM tries a little ebony flavor. But no matter how much they try positioning themselves as urban players, these stations are part of white owned and operated networks — Waitt Radio and Journal Broadcast Corporation, respectively.

To be sure, a more authentic urban electronic media model exists. One with black ownership-management and a black sensibility. Just not in Omaha. That’s ironic, too, as the queen of the urban format is Omaha native Catherine Liggins Hughes, a 58-year-old African American whose Radio One network is described as “the voice of black America and the lightning rod for the black community.” Her stations feature music, news and talk from a black perspective. She and her son, Alfred Liggins Hughes, reign over the Baltimore-area-based Radio One empire comprising 69 radio stations, one television station and, since January 2004, the new cable/satellite channel, TV One, a lifestyle and entertainment option aimed at middle-age blacks. TV One is a joint venture with Comcast Corporation. Her parent company went public in 1999 and is valued at $3 billion, making it one of the largest radio broadcasting companies overall and the largest black-owned media firm. She estimates more than 2,100 of her 2,800 broadcasters are black. Many are women.

 

 

 

 

Hughes adventure in radio comes full circle on May 14, when she receives an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the 2005 commencement at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she got her first big break in the industry. But it was in Omaha her love of radio first bloomed.

It’s been years since Omaha sustained a truly black station. One of the last was KOWH. A group of Kansas City, Mo. doctors and a consortium of Omahans, including Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, NBA veteran Bob Boozer, social service director Rodney Wead and businessman Al Gilmore, bought it in 1969 and operated it through the mid-1970s. Warren Buffett was an advisor. It’s where Hughes got her start in radio as a do-everything volunteer.

Her rise to national prominence the last 25 years has made her, outside Oprah Winfrey, Eunice W. Johnson and Condoleezza Rice, perhaps the most powerful black woman in America. She’s been called so by Essence Magazine. She counts Ebony Magazine publisher John H. Johnson and award-winning journalist Tony Brown as friends and mentors. Yet, her story’s largely gone untold in her hometown. It’s not surprising given Omaha’s conservative daily newspaper and her penchant for ruffling feathers. But hers is the classic American success story. Despite hailing from an educated and accomplished family, she overcome major obstacles growing up. A shining example of black upward mobility, her climb serves both as an inspiration for how far passion can carry one and as a reminder of how too many blacks remain disenfranchised.

Love Affair

Growing up in the now old Franklin Plaza projects just off 24th and Franklin in north Omaha, Hughes fired her imagination to the museful sounds emanating from the oversized radio she listened to in her room at night.

“My love affair with radio started when I was 8-years-old when my mother gave me a 15-pound transistor radio. I used to get spankings, because at night — when I was supposed to be asleep — I had my radio on under my pillow,” Hughes said.

Unlike her mother, Helen Jones Woods, a former musician, Hughes had “no musical talent. So, rather than being drawn towards music and embracing it, I kind of shied away from it…I felt awkward that I couldn’t sing, dance or carry a tune. The interesting thing about my relationship with radio is that the part I loved most was the commercials, not the music. Today, Radio One is a case study for the Harvard Graduate School of Business, and when they were doing their case study they said, ‘Well, no wonder y’all did OK, because your love of radio was not the music, it was the commercials.’ Yeah, I loved the commercials. I used to take my toothbrush and pretend it was a microphone and be up in the mirror — in the projects — giving commercials,” said Hughes in the earthy tones of a late-night urban deejay.She was on track meeting her family’s high standards, attending a private school, when, at 16, she got pregnant. Her marriage to the father didn’t last. “I went into shock because I had my whole future ahead of me,” she said in a 1998 Essence Magazine interview. The birth of her son snapped her out of her “arrested development. I was a lost ball in high weeds.”

Being a mom, she said, “was the last thing I ever anticipated and it turned out to be the greatest blessing of my life. Absolutely, my son changed my life. He’s the reason I am who I am today. By that I mean spiritually. He necessitated a belief in a power much greater than myself.”

She managed supporting herself and her son, got an education and made a career out of her first love — radio, and Alfred was beside her every step of the way. “I took him everywhere with me. I stayed in constant trouble with my employers, particularly when I moved to the East Coast, because I knew no one there and I was not going to entrust him to strangers. And, so, I brought him to work with me.”

Her wild success has not made her forget her struggle or the huge gap that still separates many African Americans from the good life. A self-described “black nationalist,” she’s all about promoting and strengthening the black community and emboldening her people’s sense of pride. She learned social activism from her parents, members of the social justice action group, the De Porres Club, and from crusading Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, for whom she worked and whose offices hosted De Porres meetings. The faith-based Club led Omaha’s early Civil Rights fight under the late Jesuit priest, John Markoe, of Creighton University. Formed in 1947, the Club agitated for change via demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts that opened lunch counters, like that at Dixon’s Restaurant, and desegregated employment rolls at such work sites as Coca-Cola and the street-railway company.

Hughes was also a protege of Markoe’s. She recalls marching in demonstrations when she was only five. As a teen, she helped integrate Peony Park. Markoe, a close family friend, sponsored Hughes at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, where she became the first black graduate, and loaned her mother the money to attend nursing school. “He took special interest in a lot of young black people. He saw their potential. He was a pioneer,” said Hughes’ mother. The family visited Markoe when he was dying at the old St. Joseph Hospital, where a West Point classmate of his, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also said goodbye.

Forging new ground and contributing to The Cause is a family trait Hughes inherited from her parents and maternal grandfather. “They were always very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people,” she said.

Her mother’s father, Laurence C. Jones, was one of the first African-Americans to receive an Ed.D from the University of Iowa. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. Still a premier boarding school for disadvantaged African-American students, it places the vast majority of its graduates in college. Hughes is its largest contributor. Her mother, who was adopted by Jones and his wife, attended the school and played trombone in its touring all-girl swing band — the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. As the band gained popularity down south, the Sweethearts chafed at being a cash cow for the school and left, en masse, to perform separately from the institution. Woods was among the rebels. The popular band, which included bi-racial and white members, played all over the U.S., even headlining the Apollo Theater. “When you play at the Apollo Theater, you know you’ve arrived,” Woods said. During World War II, the band entertained overseas black American military personnel as part of the USO. The orchestra disbanded in the late 1940s.

Helen Jones Woods

 

 

Helen Woods met and married her husband, and Cathy’s father, William Alfred Woods, while with the band in his hometown of Chatanooga, Tenn. After the couple moved to Omaha, he became the first African American to earn an accounting degree from Creighton University. When no one would hire him as an accountant, he worked an overnight line job at Skinner Macaroni. That is, until “the Jesuits just refused to accept the embarrassment any longer of their first black accountant bagging macaroni at night, and prevailed upon the Internal Revenue Service to give him an opportunity,” Hughes said. He later went into business for himself. Helen became an LPN and, later, a social worker at Douglas County Hospital. The couple’s first of four kids was Catherine Elizabeth, who helped raise her younger siblings.

Fascinated and Inspired

By the late ‘60s, Hughes was taking liberal arts courses at Creighton and then-Omaha University. “Fascinated with radio,” she leapt at the chance to get in on the ground floor at fledgling KOWH. “This was too good to be true, you know. Black folks owning their own radio station. This was a learning opportunity. That’s the reason I was motivated to volunteer and help out.” Even though her real radio education came later, she feels KOWH played a key role in her broacast odyssey.

“I think the reason we have a $3 billion corporation today is because Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Rodney Wead and the other individuals who invested in KOWH inspired me to do it for myself and become a broadcast owner. I saw them do it and so I figured I could. I think none of my success would have taken place if I had not seen the example set by that group. That’s very important to me, because often times when I tell in interviews what a profound effect people in Omaha had on my life, it gets left out of the story because some editor doesn’t consider Omaha exciting.”

Hughes’ big break came on the heels of love and tragedy. It was the early 1970s and she served on UNO’s Black Studies Committee, which sponsored appearances by noted journalist Tony Brown, who befriended her. The man Hughes was dating at the time was hired by Brown, then the dean of Howard University’s newly formed School of Communications, to chair a department in the School. Meanwhile, her father was given a contract by the Office of Minority Business in Washington, D.C. to organize the books of small minority businesses. Her father was set to leave for D.C. when he fell ill and died of a heart attack.

A grieving Hughes went to D.C. and was surprised when Brown offered her a job as a lecturer in Howard’s School of Communications. “I said to him, ‘But I didn’t finish college,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Neither did anyone else on the faculty other than myself.’ The faculty he allowed me to join included Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, Stan Lathan. It was a list of non-degreed practitioners of the media and this was quite revolutionary for a major institution of higher learning.”

Hughes began volunteering at Howard’s radio station, WHUR. “When I found out they had a radio station I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn, let me help out. What can I do?” Within a short time she was hired as sales manager and, later, general manager, engineering a turnaround that dramatically increased advertising revenue and put WHUR near the top of D.C.’s highly competitive black radio market.

The Quiet Storm

It was at WHUR she created The Quiet Storm, a sexy late night music-chatter format that’s come to dominate urban radio programming (once featured on 600 stations). She formulated the concept after Howard showed faith in her by sending her to a broadcast management course at Harvard University and a psychographic programming seminar at the University of Chicago. Psychographic studies help broadcasters design programming based on target audience lifestyles and trends.

So, what did Brown see in Hughes? “He saw my love of radio. My determination and commitment to the student body. He saw this was a passion for me. He knew it was like throwing a duck into water. That I was so happy for the opportunity and so fascinated with everything. I used to write back home saying, ‘My eyes are tired seeing the glory and the beauty of being an African living in America.’ Because I had never seen black men and women wrapping their heads and wearing African fabrics and having black plays and black radio. This was a new experience for me. Coming from Omaha, my daddy was the only black accountant, who knew the only black lawyer, who knew the only black dentist, who knew the only black doctor. These were the days when we had one of each in Omaha.”

When Howard University balked at licensing The Quiet Storm on the grounds it was commercially unviable, Hughes left for DC’s WYCB-AM and, in search of more creative control, began looking to acquire her own station. When DC’s WOL came up for sale, she sought to purchase it. Married at the time to Dewey Hughes, the couple made a bid with $100,000 of her own money, plus an additional $100,000 from 10 investors who put up $10,000 each. Another $600,000 came from a group of black venture capitalists. She still needed $1 million dollars from a senior lender. She was rejected by all-male lenders at 32 separate banks. Chemical Bank was her 33rd try and a new-on-the-job Puerto Rican female loan officer there approved the loan. The 1980 purchase made WOL the base of Radio One’s pioneering 24-hour talk from a black perspective format, with its theme: Information is Power.

“If that woman had not gambled on me then I would not be in business today. She was the one that made the difference,” Hughes said. “I never asked her why she did it. I assumed because she saw me a good investment. Those 32 men that told me no probably told some man yes the same week.”

Even today, after all her proven business acumen and personal wealth (in the mid nine figures), Hughes said women of color like herself still lack respect in the business arena. “It hasn’t changed. Not at all. Particularly when you’re one who’s outspoken. It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and, so, it’s definitely still brand new for African American women. It’s the whole confidence factor. You find it with your lenders…your staff…your audience. The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I divorced my husband (Dewey Hughes). He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by advertisers, lenders, creditors…They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Networking and Visioning

Today, her network of stations is in virtually every major black market: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, DC, Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Radio One’s 1995 purchase of WKYS in Washington, D.C. for $40 million, reportedly the largest transaction between two black companies in broadcasting history, made Hughes the first woman owner of a #1 ranked major market radio station.

Cathy Hughes accepting the NAACP’s Chairman’s Award

 

 

Radio One’s among the few black-owned media companies to stave off the Wall Street wolves and conglomorates that began buying up black stations and networks. Hughes’ corporate strategy of acquiring and turning around underperforming urban stations has proven profitable and grown the company exponentially. “We’re turnaround experts,” she said. Yet, only a few years ago, she tells how at “a big affair of financial types a gentleman who was not very well informed stood up and thanked my son for saving my company. Gave him full credit. And when my son tried to correct him, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, but you made a difference.’ Alfred tried to say, ‘No, I wasn’t even old enough to be around to save her company,’ but they weren’t having it. Alfred has an MBA from Wharton. He’s the one that took us public and, so, he gets the credit for about 15 years of hard work that existed before he became part of the scenario.”

Hughes’ vision for the company was big from the start and then federal legislation compelled her to keep getting bigger. “I always wanted more than one station but our corporate strategy crystallized in 1996 with the passage of the TeleCom bill (Telecommunications Act),” which removed limits on the number of stations a company could own. “It basically says, Either you grow or you go. Either you become one of the big boys or you sell out. I wasn’t interested in selling out,” she said. According to Hughes, that same Act has made radio/TV ownership a rigged system that forces vulnerable stations into the hands of giants and prevents smaller companies from buying in. She’s bought out many stations herself. The spiraling cost of media properties makes it harder, especially for prospective black owners.

“Black folks own more stations, but there are fewer owners. Sixty-nine of them belong to me. It costs several million dollars before you can get a station. It’s very difficult, unless you’re independently wealthy, to put together the financing and go through the rigors and the process of securing the license. There’s some great (black) individuals who would do a great job of running a radio station, but they’re not able to get the start-up money and organizational revenue they need.”

No dilettante operating from afar, Hughes is a hands-on media owner. It makes sense considering she came up through the ranks of radio. She’s done everything at the station level except engineer. Her first days at WOL found her scrounging for everything and even sleeping some nights on the office floor. Up until the mid-’90s she was a popular on-air personality who set the frank tone and assertive agenda for Radio One’s fierce community activism and involvement. These days, she hosts her own show, TV One On One, on the new TV One network.

 

 

 

 

A Passionate Woman

She said critics’ decrying her pro-black stances “misinterpret” her. “I’m a very passionate woman. My voice raises. I get excited. I start to talk fast. When I was on the radio, nationalism was not quite as understood and accepted as it is now. So, a lot of white journalists mistook my passion, my excitement, my commitment to my people as me being a fire-breathing activist who didn’t like white folks. Well, my second in command to my son is a white woman, Mary Catherine Sneed. She’s like a daughter to me. Just because I love my people doesn’t mean I don’t like other people. I laugh about it, because I grew up in Omaha, and if you’re black and not an integrationist in Omaha, you perish. OK? There’s not enough black folks.”

Even with Radio One and TV One ever expanding, (at one point, TV One was gaining a million new subscribers per month), Hughes is not complacent. “I don’t see it as success yet. I still see it as a work in progress. The reason I have to keep driving forward is the reality that my community seems not to be making the progress for the masses we should be making considering how blessed more of us are each year.” She feels whatever success she’s had is rooted in her community focus. “Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. It’s a misnomer that you can’t do good and do well. You don’t have to forsake your peoplehood in order to get wealthy. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience.”

Of her many riches, she said she’s proudest of “rearing a son by myself that grew up to embrace my vision, my dream, my commitment to electronic media.” She still get backs to Omaha, where her mother resides. Aside from being honored at a Native Omaha Days, Hughes keeps a low profile here with family and friends, seeing old haunts and attending mass at St. Benedict the Moor. “I earn my living being in the spotlight. When I come home, the best past of it is that there is no spotlight.”

Helen Woods never imagined all this for her daughter, although she suspected something special was in store. “Some people are destined for greatness,” she said.

Howard University’s newest crop of grads have a model of greatness they can call their own.


Now Wasn’t That a Time? Helen Jones Woods and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm

April 29, 2010 2 comments

I believe it was one of two dear departed friends, either Billy Melton or Preston Love Sr., who first told me about the International Sweethearts Rhythm and Helen Jones Woods. It’s a story about race, culture, gender, music, and history coming full circle. I was taken with the story as soon as I heard it, and I’ve never lost my affection or fascination for it. This story was published in a monthly Omaha newspaper called the New Horizons that caters to the so-called senior population. I’ve long tried to get it published elsewhere in my hometown but to no avail. This is where the Web, courtesy this blog spot, allows me to share the story with a new audience.

 

 

 

Now Wasn’t That a Time? Helen Jones Woods and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

©by Leo Adam Biga Originally published in the New Horizons (2005)Revised and updated for this blog

Back in the day, when big bands blew wild and made swing America’s most popular music and dance craze, touring orchestras tore it up at juke joints and dance halls across the land. At the height of swing, in the 1930s and ‘40s, the number and range of bands was astounding. There were the name bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Harry James, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and many others. There were novelty bands, like the one led by Spike Jones, that played for laughs. There were the Latin-flavored bands of Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz. And then there were female bands that ran the gamut from Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears to Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band.

Female performers have generally played second fiddle to their male counterparts. The one time they got a fair shake was World War II. The stock of women musicians and bands rose then as military service depleted the ranks of male artists. Girl bands flourished, but none compared to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a popular period band with strong Omaha connections. Taking the “international” of their name from the blend of ethnicities among their members, this jiving outfit laid down their hot licks on stage, record, radio and film.

The Sweethearts played gigs at jumping live music spots from coast to coast, touring every big city and little town in between. They shined at the Apollo Theater in New York and shared the stage with everyone from Basie to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Earl “Father” Hines. On their Midwest tours, the band jammed at Omaha’s Dreamland Ballroom.

Omaha claims many ties to the Sweethearts, whose brief but event-filled run lasted from 1937 to 1947. It’s where their glamorous leader and vocalist, Anna Mae Winburn, once lived and fronted for the Lloyd Hunter band. It was the hometown of manager/chaperone Rae Lee Jones. And, it’s where Sweethearts lead trombonist Helen Jones Woods (no relation to Rae Lee) lived from the early 1950s until a couple years ago. Images of the Sweethearts are included in a photo exhibition at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center at 2510 North 24th Street in Omaha.

The Sweethearts achieved fame in their short life — small wonder, given their unusual composition and origins. For openers, there’s the story of how this interracial band got its humble start in the heart of Jim Crow before bolting for the bright lights and big cities. The man who formed the band, the late educator Laurence C. Jones, was founder and head master of the strict vocational institution Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. He dedicated his life to Piney Woods, a still active foster home for poor black children from broken homes.

Helen was given up as a baby by her mixed parents and brought to the school, the only home she ever knew. She was later adopted by Jones and his wife. Never feeling fully accepted, she found solace in the band, which became her surrogate family. Made up exclusively at first of young urchins and orphans from the school, band members had few prospects outside Piney Woods other than the domestic-service jobs they toiled in.

As Helen said, “We were just glad to get away from the school.” The band was formed as a social experiment by Laurence Jones, who felt the group gave the girls another outlet, showcased minorities in a positive light and proved that racial harmony was achievable. His idea for the band was inspired by seeing Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears play in Chicago and by hearing Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Band on the radio. He also used the band as a public relations/fund raising tool for the school. The monies collected from their early paid performances supported the fledgling facility as much as they covered the girls’ tuition and room and board.

To create the group, Jones picked promising members of the school’s all-girl marching band and turned them over to a veteran musician to learn syncopation.

The band began by playing at school gymnasiums and small dance halls. “We traveled around just in Mississippi for quite a little while,” said Helen, an original member who was just 14 at the start. “As the band got better, we traveled more and more and we ventured out and played better places.” Soon, black newspapers like the Chicago Defender championed them.

The Sweethearts made a big impression wherever they went. And why not? They were an attractive troupe of nicely-coiffered, well-mannered young “colored” girls who not only looked great but could flat out play. The majority of original band members were untrained, but over the years their ranks grew to include well-schooled musicians from outside Piney Woods. In their heyday, they featured some top-flight players and some of the music industry’s finest arrangers.

Then there’s the fact the Sweethearts were integrated at a time when segregation ruled. Comprised mainly of African-Americans, their members also included Latinas, a Chinese, an Indian and Caucasians, all of which gave the Sweethearts an exotic charm that was played up in publicity stills and posters. Diversity also made traveling, especially in the South, difficult and dangerous in an era when few lodging-eating places were integrated. Down South, white members wore black face as a hedge against harassment. To avoid further hassles, the band usually stayed overnight aboard their sleeper bus, Big Bertha, or in black hotels.

As the band added older musicians, playing for peanuts at small venues became less palatable, particularly when the school raked in all the fruits of their labor. Exposed to new places and better lifestyles, members felt exploited. The band also attracted sponsors who saw the potential to cash in on their discontent. Convinced to strike out on their own and take a stab at the big time, the band’s 17 original members “ran away” en masse to Arlington, Va., to become a full-time professional orchestra independent of the school. It was 1941. Helen was 17.

 

 

 

Aided by their backers, the Sweethearts took up residence at a brick home in Arlington dubbed “Sweetheart House.” Meanwhile, school officials outraged by the rebellion, which made headlines, tried securing the return of their wards. Helen stood fast. “My father was very much upset, but he didn’t say anything about me coming back. He sent his sister Nellie to bring us to Piney Woods, and she just said, ‘It would be wise if you came home, Helen.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to stay with the band.’ I was glad to stay with the group because I felt more comfortable with them than I did being at Piney Woods. I didn’t know what future I would have there.”

Helen said a strong camaraderie existed among members. “We all got along. You must remember, most of us were out in the world and had nobody but each other in the band. We began to bond like a bunch of sisters. We all needed each other. So, therefore, we had to get along.” Going back home wasn’t an option anyway. Some had no home but for the school. Those that did had little to return to.

“In those days, going back to a home in Mississippi didn’t amount to much once you’d gotten out and seen better things,” she said. “And we were blessed to have seen better things. Where we all came from we didn’t have electricity and indoor plumbing and all those things.” Besides, she said, the band “was the way we made our living. It kept us from having to be a cook or a dish washer. It showed us an exciting time beyond the same old dull life. So, it was a pleasant change. Plus, we got a chance to see the world. That was our reward. It wasn’t money, because we certainly didn’t see any.”

Despite the Piney Woods rift, success came fast for the Sweethearts, who proved they were more than a curio act or shill for the school. “They were a heckuva band. Some of those cats could blow. Enough to make the guys take notice,” said the late Paul Allen, a longtime Omaha club owner. As word spread of their ability, the Sweethearts became a hot booking on the night club and after hours circuit.

Actually, the band enjoyed a national reputation before ever cutting strings with Piney Woods. These darlings of the black press set box office records at an impressive roster of venues. By 1940, they’d already appeared at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. and competed in a school band contest at the New York World’s Fair. Seeing the sights in the big cities was a thrill. “I think the thing that really excited us was the first time we went to Washington, D.C. and to New York,” Helen said, “because we were just a bunch of country girls and these things, you know, you only read about in history books.”

After severing ties with the school, they worked hard preparing for their major coming out party at the Apollo Theatre, the mecca for black artists. “When we first left Piney Woods we spent two or three months just rehearsing so that when we got ready to be presented, the band sounded really good,” said Helen.

Their engagement at the Apollo, where lousy acts got hooted off stage, was a hit. “The first time we played the Apollo Theatre there were lines all the way around the block. We were amazed to think we’d come that far,” she said. Their “show stopper” was a rendition of W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues. Handy himself came to hear them and met them back stage. For their debut, the Sweethearts worked with comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley and tap dancer Peg Leg Bates. From that auspicious start, the band played the Apollo twice a year.

The Piney Woods girls were used to hard work and close supervision and that discipline was used by arrangers like Eddie Durham to sharpen their precise arrangements. The Sweethearts also developed a sense of style and showmanship — from Winburn’s elegant manners and gowns to members’ high spirits and beguiling smiles. Always well-turned out, their smart ensembles epitomized class.

 

 

Unusual for a women’s band then, the Sweethearts cut recordings for RCA Victor and Guild Records. They also appeared in short films — called soundies — that were that pre-TV era’s music videos. Soundies were viewed on Panorams, a jukebox-with a screen popular at bars, diners and drug stores. The band also took part in gimmicks pitting them in staged “Battle of the Sexes” with male groups. “At that time, money was scarce and the more you offered people the more you got them to come,” Helen said.

Just as the band’s success made it easy to attract new blood into the group, it led other bands to steal away talent. There were bigger problems. When still a school band, the girls spent far more time playing and traveling than studying, which hurt their formal education. Even after breaking away from Piney Woods and adding non-students, players were expected to follow rigid rules. Some balked at the early curfews and the ban on fraternizing with the opposite sex. “The ones that did not adhere to following the orders would leave” — voluntarily or not, said Helen.

 

 

 

 

Then, as many Sweethearts have described, the band’s crooked sponsors made empty promises and pilfered their already meager earnings. “They promised us everything, but we never got anything. In fact, they stole everything from us. Most of us were left with nothing,” said Helen, whose $3,000 in savings were spent by manager Rae Lee Jones. Despite the betrayal, Helen later moved to Omaha to help care for the ailing Jones. After she died, Helen stayed on here.

During the war the band became a favorite with servicemen via broadcasts on Armed Forces Radio’s Jubilee Programs. The group was requested, by popular demand, to join an overseas USO tour. In their crisp dress WAC uniforms, the Sweethearts played for appreciative, mostly black troops in France and Germany. Everywhere they went in bombed-out Germany, Helen said, the band drew stares from natives fascinated by these women of color. For their camp shows, the girls played on makeshift stages before troops sprawled out on open fields. Helen recalls one show being interrupted by an officer. “He walked up and said, ‘Stop the music. I have an announcement to make. Japan has surrendered.’ That was the end of our concert, because everybody started hollering” and celebrating.

The Sweethearts “came apart” shortly after returning from their rousing USO tour. The girls had matured into women. They wanted to get on with their lives. Some left to marry and have kids. Others to reunite with families they’d been long separated from. And still others to continue making music, including a few — like Mary Lou Williams, Vi Burnside and Carline Ray — who went on to individual fame.

Helen met and married her late husband, William Alfred Woods, in his native Tennessee and made a life with him in Omaha, where they raised four children. She played a while with Cliff Dudley’s Band before becoming a nurse and social worker. Her husband became Creighton University’s first black accounting grad. The couple were active in the De Porres Club, an Omaha civil rights group, and in St. Benedict’s Church. Their daughter Catherine Liggins Hughes went on to found the Radio One network, which she heads today with her son Alfred Liggins Hughes.

 

Helen Jones Woods

 

 

Attempts to re-form the band fizzled and the Sweethearts faded away like their contemporaries. They were destined to be a lost chapter in jazz history until 1980, when the Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, Mo. recognized them. The event, which Helen attended and called “wonderful,” brought many Sweethearts back for a reunion celebration that sparked interest from authors, journalists, musicians and filmmakers. Since then, their story’s been retold and their music revived.

Recently, the New York-based all-women Kit McClure Band has released a tribute CD, The Sweethearts Project, that faithfully performs the Sweethearts’ music. To ensure authenticity, the Sweethearts’ original charts were transcribed from recordings and band leader McClure recruited Sweetheart Carline Ray to sing and play guitar on a couple of the tracks. A new McClure Band CD, The Sweethearts Revisited, reharmonizes the earlier group’s musical themes.

It’s a homage of the highest order and an ironic one, too, since women musicians were seldom taken seriously. As Helen said, “Some thought we did very good — for being women. Others thought we were just cute. They wanted to date us.” Articles often discussed the band’s looks more than their music. Now, 60 years later, major jazz figures respect what the Sweethearts did. Their achievements are documented in books by D. Antoinette Handy, Marian McPartland and Sherrie Tucker. The McClure Band’s tributes acknowledge the debt that today’s women musicians owe the Sweethearts for paving the way.

McClure said of all the women bands, “it was the Sweethearts’ music that caught my imagination the most. It’s dazzling. And in trying to play it, we found it’s very, very challenging. Their tempos were really, really fast. Their precision is incredible. They must of had a lot of rehearsal time. And they had a lot of talent and so much energy. When we sat down to try and play it, we all said, ‘Oooh, these women really had it going on.’ We had to step up to the plate to try to fill their shoes.”

For McClure, the Sweethearts are both “pioneers and an inspiration. The band really gave women a chance to have a voice in the music. I feel it is so important we have some women role models that went before us who had great bands and who were great musicians,” she said. “That’s the difference I hope our CDs make. That maybe finally we can get into the school systems with this music and the kids can learn the Sweethearts’ music like they learn Ellington’s and Basie’s. And maybe young girls will come up believing they can go into jazz. Things haven’t changed much since the ‘40s. It’s very difficult for even wonderfully talented women to be accepted in the major bands. Unless these women are recognized in jazz history, it’s going to take longer to change the face and gender of jazz.”

This renaissance is sweet for Omaha’s own Sweetheart, Helen Jones Woods. She’s been interviewed by jazz pianist/author Marian McPartland and award-winning film documentarian Ken Burns, whose segment on the Sweethearts didn’t make the final cut of his jazz opus. She said it was “a proud thing” when a framed portrait of the group was displayed at the Loves Jazz & Cultural Arts Center in north Omaha — a stone’s throw away from the group’s old 24th Street haunt, the Dreamland.

While appreciating their rediscovery, her homespun humility downplays any notion they were “all that.” McClure insists it was the music that had crowds queuing up to see them. Helen isn’t so sure. “I didn’t know whether it was to see the girls or to hear the music,” she said. “I have a serious feeling the music was secondary. People wanted to see a bunch of good looking black girls together who were clean and neat. A lot of the women entertainers were shake dancers and partiers and all that, where we weren’t allowed to. That wholesome image was really our selling point, because I don’t think people said we were the greatest thing since snuff.”

McClure “respectfully disagrees,” saying Helen and her mates had some serious chops as musicians. “I know she does downplay her ability, but I’m sorry, that trombone section was slammin’,” she said. “My hat is totally off to Helen Jones, because she was just a wonderful, funky musician. The whole band was funky, but that trombone section stood out.”

For Helen, her time with the Sweethearts wasn’t so much about the music or the history they made, as it was the experience it afforded. “I am one of the most blessed people in the world to have come up out of those conditions in the South and to be with the band, which gave me a chance to see every state and different countries and the privilege to meet some of the great old musicians. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”

One of only a few surviving Sweethearts, Helen filled her days working with kids at Skinner Magnet Center in Omaha, until moving in with her daughter Cathy back East. Helen long thought about writing a book on her life, but never quite got started. If a book ever were to be written about her poignant Sweethearts journey, it would be a page-turner filled with sweet nostalgia for that chapter in her life.

Now wasn’t that a time?


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