Freedom's Ladder: WNYC and New York's Anti-Discrimination Law

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On March 12, 1945, when Governor Thomas E. Dewey signed in to law the Ives-Quinn Anti-Discrimination Bill, New York became the first state to enact legislation curtailing the practice of discriminating against job applicants and employees on the basis of race, religion, or creed.

The Bill was modeled after the policies of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, created by President Roosevelt as part of Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941.

Support for the Bill was widespread among politicians and the public, but opposition from business and organized labor did exist. Among the criticism were claims that discrimination is an issue best left addressed by educational programs and that laws and provisions already in place at the time provided enough security against discrimination in employment. The enactment of the Ives-Quinn Bill, opponents argued, would impede economic growth in the state and, in some cases, drive established businesses away.

Despite this opposition, the Bill was passed by the State House and Senate and signed by Governor Dewey on March 12, 1945.

In an article published in the April, 1945, issue of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, Julia E. Baxter writes that the Law was "wisely conceived." She continues:

"It embraces provisions for immediate action as well as machinery designed to educate the public to the awareness that discrimination undermines the entire social structure. Although New York over a period of years has enacted more social and economic legislation than any other state, most of its fourteen anti-discrimination laws depend on local prosecutors for their effectiveness. And now the Ives-Quinn bill comes to supplement and complement these laws. It establishes for all persons the right to employment without discrimination by employers, labor organizations, employment agencies or other persons. It creates a state agency whose function it is to see that discrimination in employment is prohibited."

"They Can't Stop Me Now"

The great impact of this Law is felt in a story taken from the biography of baseball executive Branch Rickey by Lee Lowenfish, in which Rickey, then the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hears about the new Law:

"On the morning of March 13, 1945, Branch Rickey was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper in the spring training lodging at Bear Mountain. [Where the Brooklyn Dodgers had their very chilly spring training during the war.] Suddenly, he looked up from his paper with an animated expression on his face. 'What’s wrong dear?', Jane Rickey asked her husband, wondering what now was bothering her easily-agitated mate. 'It was in the paper, Mother, that Governor Dewey has just signed the Ives-Quinn Law!' he exclaimed. 'They can't stop me now.'"

Stop him from what? From breaking an unspoken rule in baseball at the time and signing an African-American player for the first time, which he would accomplish later that year when he signed 26 year-old Jackie Robinson to the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm team.

"A Wholesale Attack Against Prejudice"

There are many examples in the Municipal Archives' WNYC audio collection of local reactions to and effects of the Ives-Quinn Law and other topics related to discrimination. According to Baxter, the state's previous initiatives to teach tolerance in schools left much to be desired, so one of the aims of the new Law was to "commend to the appropriate state agency programs for formal and informal education." She continues: "In recognition of the newness of this legislation, its duties are expanded to provide development of a statewide adult education program to promote understanding and leadership in a wholesale attack against prejudice."

To that end, WNYC aired many programs aimed at raising awareness of racial issues and instructing the citizenry on the ways in which this Law would impact their lives.

One such program, "Freedom's Ladder," mixed entertainment with discussion of navigating the ins and outs of the new Anti-Discrimination Law. In this undated episode from 1946, host Bill Chase discusses the Anti-Discrimination Law with Lillian Sharp Hunter of the New York State Commission Against Discrimination and Ludlow W. Werner, editor of the New York Age; introduces performances by Triangle of Rhythm and the Peterson Sisters; and interviews actress Laura Bowman.

"Fostering a More Firmly-Cemented Interracial Bond"

Both Chase and the show's producer, Clifford Burdette, were African-American, a rarity in the world of radio. According to an article published in the New York Post on March 18, 1947, two years after the passing of the Ives-Quinn Bill, even though one in ten Americans was African-American, "only one out of every 150 steady jobs in radio goes to a Negro, and even then the job is likely to be that of porter, page boy or manual laborer."

The article goes on to quote research presented at a National Negro Congress panel discussion featuring CBS's Robert Heller: "There are only two Negro radio directors, Bill Chase and Cliff Burdett [sic], both on WNYC." Of the four locally-produced radio shows featuring contributions by African Americans at the time, WNYC claimed responsibility for two, "One More River" and "Freedom's Ladder."

Chase was a columnist and cartoonist for the Amsterdam News, an African-American newspaper in the city since 1909. According to Tim Jackson, a cartoonist and historian of black cartoonists, Chase was born in Arkansas in 1913 and worked as a cartoonist for the Amsterdam News from 1933 to 1949. At least one comic strip, "Pee Wee," is attributed to him, in addition to many editorial and sports cartoons. 

Chase also covered society topics in a regular column called "All Ears." One edition, about the need for African-American women to be featured in the "Meet Miss Subway" advertisement series, was recently the topic of a post on the New York Times City Room blog. In the original article, published February 7, 1942, he writes: "I wish as many people as possible would write him [John Robert Powers, the man in charge of selecting models for the campaign] a letter (247 Park Avenue) requesting his use of a colored girl's picture at some early date." He then goes on to list the names of many women "who would photograph effectively (which means they’ll appear brown enough so that there’ll be no question in the minds of subwayites as to their true racial identity)."

The City Room blog post reports that it wasn’t until 1948 that an African-American woman, Thelma Porter, was chosen as a Miss Subways.

The Ives-Quinn Law in the WNYC Archives

In addition to the program featured here, the Municipal Archives' collection of WNYC recordings also includes another episode of "Freedom's Ladder," in which Chase talks to Edward L. Carter Jr. about discrimination and performs an original composition with Melba Pope. Unfortunately, we only have one part of this show right now; the second part was transferred from a lacquer disc on to an acetate reel which also includes the December 9, 1946, episode of another Chase show, "Freedom is Everybody’s Business," in which, according to old card catalog information, Chase talks to Monica Lewis and, again, Melba Pope. We are very excited to find this recording in the future!

At the end of last year, we found another of Chase's shows, the Easter episode of "One More River," a series created "in the sincere hope of fostering a more firmly-cemented interracial bond between all peoples and eliminating the virus of hate and bias," according to its introduction. This episode, from 1947, features the Nameless Choir and was produced by Ken Joseph in collaboration with Chase.

What we first noticed about "Freedom's Ladder" as we transferred it was the name of its producer, Clifford Burdette, whose work in radio has been well-documented, but difficult to find. Burdette was the creator of several radio programs on New York stations focused on the lives of African-Americans, including "Those Who Have Made Good," about the careers of successful African-Americans in the early 1940s, and "All Men Are Created Equal," which the New York Times described as having the "laudable aim of endeavoring to promote better understanding among all people, regardless of race of color" and was broadcast on stations WNEW and WINS around the same time.

In an article published in the Daily Worker on January 20, 1942, reporter James Morison applauds Burdette’s work on the radio programs aired on WNYC: "Burdette has found a way not only to express himself, but to express the determination of his own people, the Negro people, to win complete equality in America by defeating discrimination and by counteracting the efforts of the Negro-haters."

He goes on to quote Burdette's own account of how he got in to the radio business: "I got a job as a stock boy in the silk store and later as a salesman. Soon I was able to get auditions on the air, and finally to sing in broadcasts. From that point it was increasingly easy to find a way to keep my faith with my parents' wish, that I do something to help my own people. I induced WNYC to let me experiment with an interview program, and finally the NAACP sponsored it. Today it is a popular feature with Negro and white listeners, wherever WNYC is heard."

This featured episode of "Freedom's Ladder" illustrates the importance of the work Chase and Burdette did at WNYC - and elsewhere - to further the discussion of racial and religious tolerance in the city. We look forward to discovering more evidence of their legacy in the collection.

 Listen to another edition of Freedom's Ladder: HERE

Audio courtesy NYC Municipal Archives collection.