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On this day in 1973: Historic Black television ownership teams charts plan forward

By: - June 14, 2022 6:35 am

WGPR-TV officials in the station control room in 1975 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously voted to grant a permit by African Americans to operate a television station in Detroit, those who applied for the opportunity announced plans on June 14, 1973, to make history. 

“There wouldn’t be any need for a station of this type if things were running as a democratic society should be run,” George White, WGPR-TV 62 vice president of programming told the Ann Arbor Sun. “The problem with the general media, and this refers to TV stations too, is that they haven’t considered us important enough. Therein lies the need.” 

The 1973 FCC action paved the way for WGPR to become the first African-American-owned television station in the country when it went on the air Sept. 29, 1975. With the help of longtime Detroit journalist and Republican Party activist Ulysses Boykin, the television station recruited a team of founding pioneers.

President Gerald Ford, a Republican from Grand Rapids, sent a statement of congratulations to William Banks, station owner and leader of the Detroit-based International Free and Accepted Modern Masons, a Black fraternal institution. Banks, a son of Geneva, Ky., sharecroppers, had previously run for a seat in the U.S. House as a Republican. 

“Congratulations to WGPR-TV and the men and women who helped to make it a reality,” said Ford in a pre-recorded message that aired on the station during its first broadcast day in 1975. “I’m particularly proud that this first Black-owned television station in the continental U.S. will be in my home state of Michigan. … Most importantly, WGPR will serve as a symbol of successful Black enterprise. This is truly a landmark, not only for the broadcasting industry but for American society. I want to see more of this kind of progress.”

The station provided job training and employment opportunities for African Americans in television production, broadcast journalism and sales. Its early programming included an evening news broadcast called, “Big City News” and “The Scene,” a popular weekday evening dance show. 

In 1995, Joel Ferguson, a Lansing real estate developer, Michigan State University trustee, and high-profile Democrat, made an offer to purchase the television station. Ferguson also had experience in leading television stations in the state’s capital city. However, Banks’ organization sold WGPR-TV 62 to the CBS Television Network, Inc. for reportedly $24 million. Banks died in 1985. 

In 2016, the Michigan Historical Commission erected a marker at the building that served as the station’s headquarters, and where a museum that celebrates WGPR currently operates. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.