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WGPR-TV launched in 1975 as America’s first black-owned and operated station. A museum opening MLK Day honors its legacy

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Construction workers sawed and jackhammered in the rafters, but Amyre Makupson barely heard the ruckus. The 69-year-old had traveled back to 1975, when she (then Amyre Porter) and Pal D’Que led off WGPR-TV62’s first news broadcast as Metro Detroit’s first all-women anchor team.

“Forty-two years ago I was sitting at a set over here,” she says, pointing to where a disco ball now dangles. “I wish somehow we could flash back to Sept. 29, 1975, and start all over.”

Visitors of the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum & Media Center opening Monday won’t be able to time travel, but they will see clips of that first broadcast and learn how the nation’s first black-owned and operated television station jump-started the careers of hundreds of African-Americans in broadcasting.

“They’d come in here, get their first year or two under their belts, learn how to operate a camera, perform before the camera and write for TV. Then other stations would snap them up,” says Joe Spencer, WGPR’s radio and TV program director from 1981-94. “At one time, Channels 2, 4, 7, 50, 56 all had at least three to five people who started their careers at Channel 62.”

Spencer, a restaurant owner and president of the WGPR-TV Historical Society, earlier this month toured the museum under construction — at the station’s original location on East Jefferson — with Makupson and former news director Karen Hudson Samuels. In 2011, the three alumni met up with popular dance show “The Scene” host Nat Morris and Bruce Harper, a former WGPR cameraman and director. Memories resurfaced, and the historical significance of being the first 24/7 station in Detroit, first in the market to use video cameras, first to have a black woman manager, sunk in.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford underscored WGPR was “a symbol of black enterprise.”

“This is truly a landmark, not only for the black broadcasting industry, but for American society,” he said in a congratulatory message that aired on the station’s first day.

The alumni decided to form a nonprofit, with Samuels as executive director, and set out to collect memorabilia for a museum.

“We thought if we didn’t tell the story, who would?” Samuels says.

“Before everyone was gone,” Makupson chimes in. “You start losing people, and you lose the history.“

She likens their effort to the Motown Museum.

“It’s a story that needs to be told,” she says. “Without Karen and Joe, it would never have happened. They’re the Esther Gordy Edwards of Motown.”

But without William V. Banks, there would be no museum, and many recognizable African-Americans might not be on TV or radio today.

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On Jan. 16, a new museum honoring the first African-American TV station, WGPR-TV, opens in Detroit. The museum is called the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum & Media Center in honor of the station's founder. Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News

A visionary with a mission

Born in 1903 as the son of a Kentucky sharecropper, Banks defied all odds for someone with his skin color. He became an attorney after attending Wayne State University and Detroit College of Law. He also married his white secretary, despite lynching threats.

“All that is remarkable for someone at that time when it was still extremely difficult because of Jim Crow for African-Americans to get jobs, especially to serve in law,” says his granddaughter Sheila Gregory, who wrote the book “A Legacy of Dreams: The Life and Contributions of Dr. William Venoid Banks.”

In 1950, he founded the fraternal organization International Free & Accepted Modern Masons that aimed to help blacks save, invest and give back. Banks himself owned the Broderick Tower in Detroit and invested in several properties, which made him a millionaire by today’s standards, after the Great Depression.

“He wanted to use that money to help start businesses to raise the economic status of blacks in the city,” Gregory says.

Beside trade schools and small businesses, he launched Michigan’s first black-owned FM station, 107.5, in 1964. Also a minister, he switched the call letters from Grosse Pointe Radio to Where God’s Presence Radiates.

The goal was to provide training so African-Americans could become a greater part of the broadcast industry, and dictate their own story.

“There wasn’t always true information in the press...Granddad wanted everyone to really understand what was happening in the black communities, and that it was not all bad stuff,” Gregory says.

With no TV stations operated by blacks, he applied for a TV license. In 1972, President Richard Nixon invited him and his wife to the White House. He warned that everybody would be watching, and one mishap would appear like blacks couldn’t handle a station.

“Granddad really took that to heart,” Gregory says.

The Masons — which still own the radio station today — liquidated $4 million in assets for the license, according to Detroit News archives. With the help of Nixon and Detroiter Ulysses Boykin, a Republican National Convention delegate and WGPR’s civic affairs vice president, the Federal Communications Commission approved it.

“African-Americans don’t necessarily associate opportunity for themselves with President Nixon, but quite frankly, Nixon took it upon himself to do everything he could to make sure that Dr. Banks was successful in launching WGPR-TV,” says Ken Coleman, a WGPR-TV Historical Society board member and author of “Soul on Air: Blacks Who Defined Radio in Detroit.”

Lessons and opportunities

Banks’ daughter Tenicia Gregory, now 83, became the first black woman to manage a radio and TV station.

“My dad taught me from when we were little kids that we could do almost anything if we put our minds to it,” she says in a phone interview from Atlanta, while visiting her daughter Sheila, 53.

Tenicia spent 20 years teaching at Detroit Public Schools and Oakland Community College before her father asked her to run the station. She spent the next 12 years managing affairs, until the Masons took over after Banks died in 1985 at age 82.

The hardest part, she says, was earning respect from the men, who didn’t think a woman should be in charge.

“I learned that you deal with men in a way that lets them know that you’re just as good as they are, and you can do things just as well, if not better,” she says.

So many lessons were learned at that station that gave the most inexperienced a chance.

Detroit native and former “Access Hollywood” host Shaun Robinson always dreamed of being a journalist. She started as a WGPR-TV intern, then applied to other stations, but only WGPR hired her.

“This afforded me the opportunity to go out every single day, learn what being a journalist actually meant, and it taught me writing skills, my anchoring skills, it gave me such an incredible foundation that I might not have been able to get in my hometown at the time,” she says from Los Angeles.

At WGPR, Robinson earned her first talk show, “Strictly Speaking,” where she tackled taboo topics like interracial dating. She also learned how to interview celebrities like Prince, who once stopped at the station.

“Who would have known years later that we would have come personal friends? It’s really crazy to look back on that time to see how awestruck I was at this guy,” says Robinson, 54, who’s featured on a “National Success Stories” museum panel.

For Nat Morris, hosting the popular evening dance show “The Scene” made him a household name. Yet he didn’t even want to be on TV at first.

Morris, now 69, moved to Detroit from North Carolina because he wanted to be a radio DJ, and Ray Henderson — a WGPR DJ from Morris’ area — helped get him hired. When the TV station started, Henderson suggested a show, like “Soul Train,” with local teens dancing in-studio. To Morris’ horror, the program director stuck them both on air.

“We were put in front of a camera, and everybody walked out of the room. They said, ‘OK, you can have a minute or two to see what you look like on camera,’ ” Morris recalls. “That was my training.”

Despite his lack of experience and the show’s low operating budget, it lasted 12 years, until 1987.

“Even though the show was not getting any ratings (in the beginning), they kept it on,” Morris says, referencing the need to fill air time. “By not canceling it, they gave me an opportunity to learn more about TV production and how to get the show more popular.”

The rise of techno also helped.

WGPR DJ The Electrifying Mojo exposed techno on the radio, but “The Scene” exposed it on the screen.

“When we played it on TV it gave the audience an opportunity to see how to dance to it,” Morris says. “There’s a big toss up as to who helped spread techno more: Was it ‘The Scene’ or Mojo? But it was a combination of both. And it all goes back to WGPR radio and TV — it’s the station in Detroit that basically broke techno.”

A lasting legacy

Banks couldn’t have launched WGPR-TV at a better time.

“Following the civil disturbances throughout the ’60s, there became a cry from Congress and across the nation that the television stations and newspapers needed to reflect the people that they served,” Spencer says.

That was a challenge for TV stations, predominantly run by white men who sought to hire skilled reporters and camera operators.

“There wasn’t a lot of people out there with the experience they needed, so we were constantly feeding them people,” says Spencer, glazing over a display of alumni, including Channel 4 assignment editor James Jackson and Kenneth Bryant Jr., a producer at CBS62 and CW50.

In 1995, CBS bought the station, renaming it WWJ-TV and ending the 20 years of career training. The 1996 Telecommunications Act also deregulated stations in a way that Coleman says made them vulnerable to “the big fish in the pond and provide fewer opportunities for minorities.”

“If Dr. Banks were around today,” Coleman adds, “he’d probably be very sad to see there are fewer African-American-owned television stations today than there were in the ’80s.”

According to Pew Research Center, four African-Americans own 12 TV stations. Coleman points out the irony: “We’ve seen the first African-American president, but at the same time, we seem to be taking steps backward in terms of broadcast ownership.”

It’s one reason the WGPR-TV Historical Society and Masons built a museum as a tribute to Banks and the work of African-Americans in broadcasting.

Though there’s a WGPR display in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, station vice president Kenneth Hollowell — a Mason the past 50 years — says this museum fills a “missing piece” in educating blacks about their role in the media.

“To have a greater understanding how WGPR began and the opportunities it opened up for many blacks in television here locally and across the nation is something that can lift some pride,” he says.

Last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a Michigan historical marker was installed on the front of the building. A year later, Mayor Mike Duggan will cut a ribbon, opening the museum. The Gregorys hope visitors leave with one takeaway that Banks taught them, and many others.

“With dedication, determination, tenacity and hard work,” Sheila Gregory says, “any person can overcome adversity, and in their success, give opportunities to others.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Grand opening ceremony

9:30-11 a.m. Monday

3146 E. Jefferson

Museum hours

10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Fridays

The museum is seeking volunteers. Email detroit@wgprtvhistory.org if interested.

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