Jack L. Cooper is widely
acknowledged as the first African American radio broadcaster. Cooper, born in
Memphis, Tennessee on September 18,
1888, was the youngest of 10 children. He was raised in a poor, single-parent
home, and, at the age of 10, quit school and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to work at a racetrack. Aside from
his work at the racetrack, Cooper worked a number of odd jobs as a teen and was
a successful boxer, winning the Ohio Negro welterweight title in the late 1910s.
Cooper began his entertainment career as a dancer and comic on the Theater
Owners Booking Association, a popular African American vaudeville circuit in
the 1920s and 1930s. Here he met his first wife, Estelle Mansfield (Madam
Lamar) Cooper, and they created the Cooper and Lamar Music Company.
Image Ownership: Public Domain
Cooper’s entry into radio was due not to his early career as an entertainer,
but to his work as a journalist. While he toured with Madam Lamar Cooper, he
wrote for black newspapers in Memphis and Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1924, this led to the position of assistant theater
editor at the influential Chicago
Defender in Chicago, Illinois.
Cooper wrote a weekly column, “Coop’s Chatter,” and the newspaper selected him
to help open up its new Washington, D.C.
office in 1925. Later that year, the producer of a show on WCAP in Washington,
D.C. hired Cooper to help write and perform comedy skits based on Negro
dialect. The show, although successful, required Cooper to perform a sort of
radio minstrel show aimed at white consumers where his role was to creatively
mock African American language.
Because of these restraints, Cooper quit his job at WCAP and returned to
Chicago with the goal of creating a radio program that would attract a black
audience. Cooper developed an idea for a weekly variety show, but had no luck
finding a station that would take his show. In 1929, Joseph Silverstein, owner
of WSBC, a low-power station that catered mainly to Chicago’s large immigrant
population, agreed to air Cooper’s The All-Negro
Hour. At the start, The All-Negro
Hour focused on live music and vaudeville comedy, but gradually
incorporated the comedy serials—humorous skits that followed the same
characters each week—that were popular in the era.
In the coming years, Cooper developed into a radio mogul. Cooper popularized
playing records on the radio. He built his own radio studio and created a radio
advertising agency which profited from the advertisements of black and white
entrepreneurs as well as local entertainers who purchased airtime. By the late
1940s, Cooper produced over 40 hours of radio each week on four radio stations.
His programming also diversified. Cooper produced religious shows such as Know Your Bible and public affairs shows
in coordination with both the Chicago
Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier.
At his peak in the late 1940s, Cooper commanded the largest black radio
operation in America and earned over $200,000 per year. His success laid the
groundwork for generations of black radio personalities. Jack L. Cooper died on
January 12, 1970 in Chicago. In 2012, Cooper was posthumously inducted into the
Radio Hall of Fame.
William Barlow, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999); Donald G. Godfrey and Frederic
A. Leigh, Historical Dictionary of
American Radio (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998); http://www.radiohof.org/discjockey/JackLCooper.htm.