Hal Jackson, black radio pioneer and civil rights activist, dies at 96

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times - Hal Jackson, whose pioneering radio career started in Washington in the 1930s, stayed on the air into his 90s.

Hal Jackson, who broke through the color wall on the radio in Washington in the 1930s, pushed the District’s major clothing retailers to let blacks into their dressing rooms and restrooms in the ’40s and became the first black host on a national broadcast network in the ’50s, died May 23 at a hospital in New York, his family confirmed.

Mr. Jackson was 96, by most accounts, and still hosted a weekly music show on a New York radio station he once owned.

(Pepsi-Cola Company) - Hal Jackson founded the Miss Black Teenage America pageant, which later became the Talented Teens International competition.

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Through most of the second half of the last century, many black New Yorkers grew up knowing Mr. Jackson as the man who introduced them to the latest R&B hits, a radio DJ whose smiling face appeared on billboards across the city. For decades before that, Mr. Jackson’s was a household name in black Washington.

A broadcasting and civil rights pioneer who repeatedly found ways to smash through barriers, Mr. Jackson as a Howard University student was determined to get on the radio, at first as a sportscaster.

In the mid-1930s, he won free entry to Griffith Stadium by volunteering to clear trash during Washington Senators games. But no blacks were allowed in the press box, even when the Negro League’s Homestead Grays were playing. So Mr. Jackson climbed to the rooftop and made himself useful to the stadium announcer, who eventually allowed Mr. Jackson to narrate some Grays games to the crowd in the ballpark.

At the time, Negro League games were not broadcast on the radio in Washington. In 1939, Mr. Jackson went to the offices of WINX, then owned by The Washington Post, introduced himself as the Grays’ stadium announcer, and made the case for putting games on the air.

The station manager’s response: “No n----- will ever go on this radio station.”

Incensed, Mr. Jackson concocted a scheme: He would buy time from WINX and get on its airwaves without the manager’s knowledge. Mr. Jackson found a sponsor, C.C. Coley, who owned half a dozen barbecue joints in town, and working incognito through a white-owned advertising agency, Mr. Jackson purchased 15 minutes of time on WINX at 11 p.m. each night for $35 a show.

He wrote a proposal to present “The Bronze Review,” a program of entertainment, interviews and news, but Mr. Jackson said nothing about having a black host. The station’s white executives had no idea that “bronze” was then the classy term for “negro” in Washington’s black community.

On his debut night, Mr. Jackson arrived at WINX with his first guest, Mary McLeod Bethune, President Frankin Roosevelt’s director of Negro affairs. They waited outside until 15 minutes before airtime to minimize the chance that station managers might bar them from the air. The show went on, devoted to a discussion about Washington’s blighted black neighborhoods.

“The Bronze Review,” with guests such as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, entertainer Lena Horne and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.), became a nightly must-listen for black Washington.

“I knew the station was getting flak for letting me on, but they liked that money they were making,” Mr. Jackson told this reporter for his 2007 book about the history of radio, “Something in the Air.”

Mr. Jackson “was certainly one of the legendary figures in radio,” said Ron Simon, a radio historian at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “He really broke down the color barrier in radio both as a broadcaster and then as owner of a station and network.”

In 1995, Mr. Jackson was the first black elected to the Radio Hall of Fame.

Harold Baron Jackson was born in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 3, 1915, he wrote in his memoir “The House That Jack Built.” The date was an educated guess, he added, because black births were not officially recorded in the South. He was the fifth child born to Eugene Jackson, a tailor, and the former Laura Rivers.

He was 8 when his mother died of tuberculosis, and his father died soon afterward. He was sent to Washington to live with his aunt, Alice Cornish, who is now 105. He graduated in 1933 from Dunbar High School, where he met his first wife, Claudia Parrat.

By the mid-1940s, Mr. Jackson was doing sports and his late-night talk show on WINX and spinning “race records,” as songs by black artists were then known, during morning drive time on WOOK in Silver Spring. He performed commercials in rhyme and urged listeners to join his Good Deed Club, collecting toys and books for charities.

Before long, Mr. Jackson took two more radio jobs, a midday show at WANN in Annapolis and an evening gig on Baltimore’s WSID. His nightly sign-off reflected his peripatetic life: “I’ve got to pack the the shellac and hit the track, but I’ll be back.”

In 1949, Mr. Jackson — by then also host of a television variety show broadcast from the Howard Theatre — organized a picket on Connecticut Avenue, then the city’s most prestigious shopping boulevard, against retailers who sold to black customers but refused to let them use the dressing rooms or restrooms. The protest worked: Stores changed their policies.

Managers at WINX grumbled about Mr. Jackson’s foray into politics, but didn’t act until he led a strike by radio employees seeking higher pay. Then, WINX told Mr. Jackson to take his act elsewhere.

In 1954, a New York station, WMCA, lured Mr. Jackson to Manhattan to create the city’s first integrated air staff. Mr. Jackson’s “All-American Revue” was designed to appeal to black and white listeners with music by Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Xavier Cugat.

Within a couple of years, Mr. Jackson was again on the air virtually around the clock at white- and black-owned stations. By the late 1950s, Mr. Jackson had added a children’s TV show that featured New York’s first integrated studio audience. And when Irving Rosenthal, the owner of Palisades Amusement Park, asked Mr. Jackson to host weekend concerts at the theme park, the DJ’s face was plastered on billboards around New York.

But some black listeners challenged Mr. Jackson for working at a park that did not permit blacks to enter its heavily-advertised saltwater swimming pool. Mr. Jackson went to Rosenthal to ask how someone who sought black business could maintain such a racist policy.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Rosenthal protested. “The pool is open to everybody.”

The next day, Mr. Jackson lined up 50 black visitors and marched them into the pool.

In the early 1960s, during the payola scandal that resulted in hundreds of top DJs being sacked for taking money to play promoters’ records, Mr. Jackson — by then working at a black station — was charged with taking $10,000 from nine record companies.

It cost Mr. Jackson his job at WLIB. He admitted taking promoters’ checks for $25 or $50, but contended that he was singled out for prosecution because of his civil rights work with Martin Luther King Jr.; the two had led pickets against construction projects that wouldn’t hire black workers.

Mr. Jackson gradually returned to the New York airwaves and rebuilt his following. He parlayed his success as a disk jockey into a second career as a broadcasting executive, joining with investors to form Inner City Broadcasting, which bought WLIB in 1971 and later added an FM station that became one of New York’s most popular stations, WBLS. His company eventually owned stations in five cities. For the past two decades, he hosted a weekend show of R&B classics on WBLS.

Mr. Jackson was also for many years the host and owner of the Miss Black Teenage America beauty pageant, which evolved into the Talented Teens International competition. In 1987, he married Deborah Bolling “Debi” Jackson, a former volunteer with the contest.

His earlier marriages to Parrat, Julia Hawkins and Alice LaBrie ended in divorce. Besides his fourth wife, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Jane Jackson Harley of Washington; two children from his second marriage, Harold Jackson Jr. of Milwaukee and Jewell McCabe of New York; six grandchildren; and a great granddaughter.

Shortly before Mr. Jackson died, the Paley Center had been planning for him to broadcast from the museum as a final tribute to his career. “It was his great voice but more than that, his ability to connect to individuals even as he spoke to the wider audience that made him a success in so many areas,” Simon said.