*June 28, 1951 proved to be more than just another hot summer night of programming for the relatively new medium called television. The date marked CBS’ debut of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a situational comedy featuring an “all-black” cast.
The airing of this outrageously funny program was the first ever “all-black” television series, and was a pioneering giant for the multiplicity of black sitcoms that have aired over the ensuing 60 years. Clarification: The Beulah Show, a situational comedy television show actually debuted before Amos ‘n’ Andy. The show, which aired on ABC in 1950, however, featured an “integrated cast” led by actress Ethel Waters who played Beulah, a black maid.
The “all-black” cast of Amos ‘n’ Andy was different. Set in Harlem, New York, Amos ‘n’ Andy focused on the scheming, conniving, and plotting life of George (Kingfish) Stevens (Tim Moore), who had a knack for looking for fast and easy ways to make money. As head of the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge, Kingfish was a master schemer whose antics often involved many of his lodge brothers. Needless to say, his plots always backfired.
The victim of many of Stevens’ conniving brainstorms involved his lodge buddy and best friend, Andy Brown (Spencer Williams). Although Andy was the perennial “sitting duck” for Kingfish, the gullible, cigar smoking, derby hat wearing rotund brother of the lodge kept coming back for more, earning him the dubious classic line uttered emphatically by Stevens, “You big dummy!” (remember Fred Sanford’s similar description of Lamont Sanford on the ‘70s sitcom Sanford and Son). Anyway, Kingfish’s self-labeled “brilliant plots” often landed him in hot water, especially with his no-nonsense wife, Sapphire (Ernestine Wade), who was backed by her mother, Romona Smith (Amanda Randolph) who never liked Kingfish in the first place. In an effort to get out of the hot mess he consistently created, Kingfish would emphatically deliver this classic plea to Andy: “Holy mackerel, Andy! We all got to stick together is dis heah thing…remember, we is brothers in that great fraternity called the Mystic Knights of the Sea.”
Another member of this groundbreaking ensemble was Amos Jones (Alvin Childress). Although his character’s name was part of the show’s title, his roles were not significant in many of the show’s plots. He was, however, the voice of reason as he narrated most of the episodes. Amos, a cabdriver, was masterful at balancing the madness created by Kingfish. Rounding out the show’s cast were Lightenin’ (Nick Stewart), the slow talking, even slower moving janitor; Madam Queen (Lillian Randoph), Andy’s girlfriend; Henry Van Porter (Jester Hairston), a black socialite; and who could ever forget Algonquin J. Calhoun (Johnny Lee), the animated and colorful attorney-at-law who had his hands full defending – and sometime joining – the Kingfish’s antics and scores of fizzled schemes.
The first season of Amos ‘n’ Andy was extremely popular, earning an A.C. Nielsen rating that ranked the show No. 13, ahead of such popular television programs as the Goodyear Television Playhouse and The Lone Ranger. A.C. Nielsen, which was founded in 1923 to gauge radio audiences’ listening patterns before gauging television viewership, typically have ranked many of the black sitcoms over the last 25 years near the bottom of its list.
While television audiences of Amos ‘n’ Andy continued to grow in popularity, the show drew the ire of the NAACP and other civil rights groups, who from the program’s inception felt the show’s writers/producers created and fostered false racial stereotypes. With mounting pressures from civil rights advocates, the show was canceled after 78 original episodes, the last of which aired on June 11, 1953.
Reruns, however, continued to air on local CBS television affiliates until 1962 when the network announced that The Amos ‘n’ Andy Television Show had been sold to the African countries of Kenya and Nigeria. Kenya later banned the program from airing in the country.
Soon afterwards, a television station in Chicago announced it would air reruns of Amos ‘n’ Andy, an announcement that again ignited bitter protests from civil right groups. Caving to pressure, the television station reversed its decision.
Never far from controversy, Amos ‘n’ Andy was under fire long before it aired on television, generating immense heat from the opposition as it ruled the radio airwaves of America beginning in the late 1920s. Actually, complaints about the show’s “blackface” forerunner, Sam ‘n’ Henry began pouring into Chicago’s WGN radio station on January 12, 1926 when this program debuted.
Created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correl, Sam ‘n’ Henry, which was based on the same premise as Amos ‘n’ Andy, was a big hit. However, when the two white men sought to move their radio show to another Chicago station, they were not allowed to retain the rights to the name Sam ‘n’ Henry. Thus, Gosden and Correl created Amos ‘n’ Andy, and amid fierce protests, produced all the radio – and eventually all the television episodes of Amos ‘n’ Andy. The radio production is one of longest running radio programs ever, amassing almost 5,000 episodes.
It is interesting to point out that in 1931, Robert Vann, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, mounted a nationwide petition campaign to drive Amos ‘n’ Andy off the radio citing, “the radio show undermined the self-respect and general advancement of Negroes in the United States.” It was reported that Vann collected more than 700,000 signatures in support of his drive. However, another powerful black newspaper in America reportedly saw things differently. Several historians have reported that the Chicago Defender, considered the premier black newspaper of the era, voiced overwhelming and continuing support of Amos ‘n’ Andy, even inviting Gosden and Correl to one of the newspaper’s annual picnics which was attended by thousands of Negroes.
PLEASE LOOK FORWARD TO PART II