21 Days of Black History In Radio (2/11): WERD: From 1st Black Owned Station to Last CJ Walker Salon
The legacies of two historic Black American institutions live on in this unassuming brick building.
This small brick building located just a few blocks from the King Center in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district, holds a surprisingly rich history. The Hilliard Street storefront was home to one of the last licensed Madam C.J. Walker beauty salons in Atlanta, and before that to WERD, the first radio station in the United States completely owned and operated by Black Americans.
Jesse B. Slayton Sr., an accountant, bank president, and Atlanta University professor, purchased WERD in 1949 for a sum of $50,000 at the time, which equates to about $585,718.49 in today's economy. Blayton Sr. went on to change the entire station format to "black appeal" and hired his son Jesse Jr. as station manager.
WERD quickly became a fixture for the city’s Black community. The radio station offered a platform for jazz and blues musicians. Soon after the station's opening broadcast, Jesse Sr. hired DJ "Jockey" Jack Gibson (also known as Jack the Rapper)and by 1951 Jack became the most popular DJ in Atlanta.
The station was housed in the Masonic building on Auburn Avenue, at the time, one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the United States. Located in that same building was the newly formed Southern Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., giving WERD the opportunity to also serve as the broadcast platform for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Sunday sermons.
It has even been said that King would often beat on the roof of the office to WERD with a broomstick as a signal to send the microphone down when he wanted to make a public address.
After playing an intricate role in the Civil Rights Movement, WERD was later sold by Mr. Blayton in 1968 where this historic building would go on and eventually became the home to one of Madam C.J. Walker’s Beauty Shoppes.
Today, now-owner Ricci de Forest allows this prestigious space to operate as a museum and event space, as well as an active hair salon. A portion of the building is dedicated to Madam C.J. Walker, including hair tools from the 1940s and 1950s that were discovered in the old salon space--Another part is dedicated to WERD, and thousands of vinyl records decorate the walls. De Forest has even gone on to curate a collection of historic items for the space, such as Jim Crow-era signs and vintage cameras.
Preserving this space is one of the many ways that Atlantans have honored Sweet Auburn’s history and ties to the U.S. civil rights movement. While celebrating the past, de Forest also looks to the future—he often invites local artists to perform at the museum, and hopes that the space will inspire future generations.