Richard Durham papers




Chicago Public Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Woodson Regional library


9.0 Linear feet




Durham, Richard, 1917-1984

Biographical/Historical note

Richard Durham was born on September 6, 1917 in Raymond, Mississippi, a small rural community in Hindes County. His father, a farmer, aspired to a better life outside of the South and moved the family to Chicago when Durham was seven years old. Durham attended Hyde Park High School and Northwestern University. While at Northwestern, Durham joined the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration and received training and experience as a radio scriptwriter. When this project ended, Durham joined the staff of the Chicago Defender. Durham’s first major experience with radio came between 1946 and 1948 when he wrote scripts for a series on black achievement, Democracy U.S.A., which aired on WBBM, a CBS station. A workplace injury unexpectedly began Durham’s writing career. While working at a shade cleaning plant, he injured his foot by standing in a chemical solution with shoes that were not waterproof. While he was recovering, his sister gave him a typewriter and he began to write poetry and soon won first prize in a poetry contest. Durham created and wrote all the scripts for Here Comes Tomorrow, a black soap opera that aired on WJJD. Destination Freedom, a dramatic radio series on WMAQ in Chicago, brought the freedom struggles of African Americans to Chicago listening audiences on Sunday mornings between 1948 and 1950. Durham’s prolific writing career would span four decades and would extend far beyond radio: Durham edited the official publication of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Speaks in the 1960s; he created the television series Bird of the Iron Feather in the early 1970s; he co-authored The Greatest, the autobiography of boxing champion Muhammad Ali, which was published in 1977; and he wrote numerous speeches for Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, in the 1980s.

The premier of Destination Freedom on June 27, 1948 signaled a landmark in African American broadcasting history. Drawing on the talents of young intellectuals and entertainers including Oscar Brown Jr., Studs Terkel, Janice Kingslow, Wezlyn Tilden, Fred Pinkard and Vernon Jarrett, Durham developed scripts that captured the lives and struggles of everyday men and women as well as prominent African Americans. Unlike the typical radio fare of its time, Destination Freedom featured social dramas that eloquently appealed for racial justice. As Durham explained, “the real-life story of a single Negro in Alabama walking into a voting booth across a Ku Klux Klan line has more drama and world implications than all the stereotypes Hollywood or radio can turn out in a thousand years.” In striking contrast to the hackneyed images of blacks and as a remedy to the gross underrepresentation of blacks in radio production, Durham cast black actors in leading roles and told the stories of activists and leaders including Frederick Douglass, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Mary Church Terrell; writers and artists including Richard Wright, Katherine Dunham and Gwendolyn Brooks and cultural legends such as Stackalee and John Henry.

Hours of careful research at the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library with Vivian Harsh’s assistance, close readings of autobiographies, monographs and speeches and skilled scriptwriting brought these historical and contemporary figures to life in poignant detail on Destination Freedom. Certain of the redemptive power of black history and education, Durham went beyond recounting the biographies of these figures and focused on the ways that they overcame racial injustice through resistance. Durham challenged network protocols to ensure that the series featured black women as equally important, history-making figures. The series lacked a sponsor for most of the time it aired on WMAQ, but by relying on his earlier connections, Durham persuaded the Chicago Defender to fund the first weeks of the broadcast and the Urban League sponsored several broadcasts in 1950. Despite Durham’s efforts to exercise authorial control over the series, WMAQ edited, controlled final script approval and rejected the more controversial stories of the lives of Nat Turner and Paul Robeson. Despite these conflicts, the station recognized the import and the success of the show when in 1949, it won a prestigious first-place award from the Institute for Education by Radio. On the anniversary of its first episode, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson commended the program for its efforts in increasing racial tolerance and in educating the public on the contributions of African Americans. Despite these accolades, WMAQ canceled Destination Freedom in 1950, just as the rising tide of anti-Communist conservatism began to adversely affect radio and the arts.

Durham remained actively involved in civil rights struggles throughout his life. In the 1950s, he worked as the national program director of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. Durham was hired to write a pamphlet on the accomplishments of the union’s anti-discrimination department. The pamphlet, “Action Against Jim Crow: UPWA’s Fight for Equal Rights,” described the progressive work of the union to end job discrimination and to elevate women to equal status and equal pay in the workplace. The union was so pleased with Durham’s work that they hired him as the head of the program office and he wrote and developed materials to publicize the union’s programs and events. But conflict arose as Durham continued to put pressure on the union to support and to prioritize black advancement. In 1957, he was forced to resign. After leaving the union, Durham worked as a freelance journalist. In the 1960s, he became the editor of Muhammad Speaks, the weekly publication of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Durham sought to provide an international perspective to the newspaper and included several articles on the independence struggles of African nations in the 1960s. In 1971, Durham created a television series, Bird of the Iron Feather, which aired on WTTW, a local PBS station in Chicago. Described as a “soul drama” and funded by the Ford Foundation, this series was praised for introducing more authentic television programming and for portraying African American life in a more realistic fashion. Given the dearth of blacks in television production, Bird of the Iron Feather broke new ground by being almost exclusively written, directed and produced by blacks. While working as an editor for Muhammad Speaks, Durham was asked to assist Muhammad Ali in writing his autobiography, The Greatest, which was published in 1977.

Richard Durham met Clarice Davis in the early 1940s while both were volunteering with the National Negro Congress. Clarice was born in Mobile, Alabama and moved to Chicago when she was eleven years old. She attended Wendell Phillips High School until it was temporarily closed because of a fire. She graduated from DuSable High School where she was the valedictorian of her class. The couple married in 1942. During their married life, Ms. Durham was an early childhood educator. She also made significant contributions to Durham’s work by reading, editing and typing many of the Destination Freedom scripts. Mrs. Durham has remained a lifelong human rights activist. After working for the National Negro Congress, she was a member of the Progressive Party in Chicago in the late 1940s. Mrs. Durham continues to be an activist for the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression and has campaigned for freedom for Mark Clements, a victim of police torture. Richard and Clarice Durham have one son, Mark Durham. Richard Durham died on April 27, 1984 while on a business trip in New York. At the time of his death, Durham was researching the life of Hannibal, the illustrious Carthagenian warrior who planned to conquer Rome. Mayor Harold Washington delivered the eulogy at his memorial service and a number of famous Chicagoans including historian Dempsey Travis, entertainer and former Destination Freedom cast member Oscar Brown Jr. and Congressmen Charles Hayes and Gus Savage attended the service. In August 2007, Richard Durham was selected for induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame.

Scope and Contents note

The papers include correspondence, research notes, play scripts, clippings, serials, photographs, page proofs and galleys.

Related Archival Materials note

Richard Durham Radio Scripts - Chicago History Museum Destination Freedom Audiotapes - The Museum of Broadcast Communications Illinois Writers Project/"Negro in Illinois" Papers-Chicago Public Library - Carter G. Woodson Regional Library Chicago Public Library, George Cleveland Hall Branch Archives - Chicago Public Library - Carter G. Woodson Regional Library

Custodial History note

Donation of Clarice Durham

Processing Information note

This collection was surveyed as part of the Black Metropolis Research Consortium's Survey Initiative on 2010 September 7 by Lisa Calahan.