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On this day in 1999: Pioneering Black radio personality Van Douglas dies

By: - July 30, 2021 6:39 am

Van Douglas | Doug Morison photo

Van Douglas, Detroit’s first Black radio star, died at age 84 on July 30, 1999. The native Virginian and Wayne State University graduate enjoyed a pioneering broadcast career that spanned for more than 50 years.

Douglas, born Howard Douglas Morison on May 6, 1915, worked as an announcer on WMBC-AM 1400 beginning in 1937 on the “Flying Cloud Quintet” broadcast. In 1941, the station became WJLB and later featured on-air personalities including Bristoe Bryant, who was African American and served one, two-year term in the Michigan Senate in 1951 and 1952, and Charles Diggs Jr., who served in the Michigan Senate during the early 1950s and the U.S. House beginning in 1955.  Douglas, Bryant and Diggs, as well as others, helped to motivate African Americans to vote and push back against various forms of racial discrimination during the early years of the Civil Rights movement. 

By the mid-1940s, after Douglas served in World War II, he began hosting music broadcasts “Harlem on Parade” and “Harlem Nocturne” on WJBK-AM 1490. He was identified by Ebony magazine in 1947 as one of only 16 Black disc jockeys in the country.

During Douglas’ heyday, Detroit was still a growing city, eventually topping off at 1.8 million residents in 1950. And its Black population was growing, too. In fact, it doubled between 1940 and 1950, skyrocketing from 149,000 residents to 300,000 residents. 

Few local radio stations, however, offered programming geared toward African Americans other than WJLB-AM 1400 and CKLW-AM 800. Both stations sold block time to Blacks, mainly clergy leaders, who delivered sermons or featured choirs and gospel music. WJBK’s Ed McKenzie, known as “Jack the Bellboy,” was the only white disc jockey in Detroit during the 1940s who played Black artists like Nat Cole, Louis Jordan and Sarah Vaughan on a routine basis.

Douglas’ radio career paralleled his tenure as an educator. He served as a Detroit Public Schools teacher at Barstow, McCullough and Duffield schools as well as an assistant principal at Lillibridge Elementary School. A deacon and treasurer at Conant Gardens Church of Christ, Douglas earned a Michigan Gospel Pioneer award in 1994, which was sponsored by McDonald’s and Michigan State University.

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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.