Jesse B. Blayton Sr. Biography
Pioneering Certified Public Accountant, radio station owner
Radio hall of fame inductee Jesse B. Blayton Sr. became the first black radio station owner and operator in the United States when he bought Atlanta radio station WERD in 1949. The station pioneered radio programming for the black community, deliberately cultivating what it called "Negro appeal" by playing rhythm-and-blues music aimed at a black audience. In the 1960s the station aired interviews and public statements by members of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Council, including King himself. Although he is best known for this achievement, Blayton was also pioneer in other areas. In 1928 he became Georgia's first black Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and only the fourth in the entire United States; he also held positions as a bank president and as a professor at Atlanta University. He was inducted into the radio hall of fame in 1995.
Jesse B. Blayton Sr. was born in Fallis, Oklahoma, on December 6, 1897, and attended the Walton School in Chicago. He went on to study at the University of Chicago before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, to practice as an accountant in 1922. Blayton was talented and ambitious enough to succeed in a profession that included very few black Americans at any level. In 1928 he passed the examination to become Georgia's first black CPA and the fourth nationwide. The significance of this achievement can hardly be overstated; CPAs are the elite of the profession in the United States. Reviewing A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921, Maceo Dailey notes that in the 44 years between 1921 and 1965, just 100 black accountants passed the CPA examinations and even fewer found employment: "even by the end of the twentieth century, African Americans numbered less than one percent of the 400,000 CPAs in the nation."
Blayton, who became known affectionately as the "Dean of Negro Accountants," did a great deal to encourage blacks to enter the profession, in particular through his work as a professor at the University of Atlanta, but the profession remained largely closed to blacks until late in the twentieth century. Before then, white-owned CPA accountancy firms would not hire black accountants because, they said, their clients would not tolerate it; in 1939, over a decade after Blayton's certification, there were still only eight black CPAs in the United States.
Blayton pursued his career undaunted, eventually becoming president of an Atlanta bank. But he is more widely known as the owner and operator of the 1,000-watt Atlanta radio station WERD, which he purchased for $50,000 in 1949. Employing his son Jesse B. Blayton Jr. as the station manager, Blayton intended to create a station that would serve the black community. He fired the all-white staff and hired Jack Gibson to devise programming that would have what they called "Negro appeal," specifically rhythm-and-blues music. Blayton was the first black owner and operator of a radio station in the United States. Up until that point white-owned stations had targeted black listeners, employing black DJs and station managers. But white station owners were generally nervous about programs that promoted the civil rights message.
"Jockey Jack" Gibson quickly became one of Atlanta's most popular public figures. He started a daily news item to relay news relevant to the black community and brought in professors from the University of Atlanta to comment on the stories. Donna L. Halper suggests that until then there was a "code of silence" about racism, even on black radio stations. Halper quotes Alex Leech, the white owner of a black radio station in Jackson, Tennessee: "We had news every hour … but it was mainly church news and news of meetings…. Times were just different then. We tried to keep the trouble down."
Backed by Blayton, WERD announcers Gibson, Joe Howard, Roosevelt Johnson, and Jimmy Winnington had no such fears. WERD played an important part as an outlet for information and speeches from the growing black civil rights movement. The station was situated in rooms at the Prince Hall Masons Grand Lodge at 334 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, just upstairs from the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Martin Luther King Jr. One anecdote about the station in the 1960s has it that whenever he wanted to make a public statement King would hammer on the ceiling and the WERD announcer would lower a microphone out of the window for him to talk into.
By 1954 around 200 radio stations around the country targeted black audiences and throughout the 1950s and 1960s attempts were made to establish a nationwide "Negro Network," an idea that did not become a success until the 1970s. Blayton sold WERD in 1968 and went into semi-retirement, though he remained an active community leader until his death on September 7, 1977. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995; the organization Associated Black Charities awards the Jesse B. Blayton Sr. award to a "black history maker" each year.
Barlow, William, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio, Temple University Press, 1999.
Hammond, Theresa A., A White-Collar Profession: African American Public Accountants Since 1921, University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Business History Review, Spring 2003.
Enterprise and Society, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003, pp. 173-75.
Halper, Donna L., African Americans and Radio, www.bjmjr.com/aaradio/part4.htm (September 19, 2005).
"Jesse B. Blayton, Sr.," Radio Hall of Fame, www.radiohof.org/pioneer/jessebblayton.html (September 19, 2005).
"WERD," New Georgia Encyclopedia, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?path=/Media/Broadcasting/Radio-1&id=h-2859 (September 19, 2005).
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