“Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work”: WPA Document by Black Radio Pioneer Richard Durham

Over the coming months, I plan to post several important WPA documents that were not included in The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers, but will be of interest to scholars and the public. For the first time, Richard Durham’s essay, “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” is made available here.

To read it click here: WPA documents Richard Durham Don’t Spend.

DurhamRichard Durham was a pioneering radio writer, best known for his series Destination Freedom, a radio program dramatizing African American history broadcast on WMAQ in Chicago from 1948 to 1950. He was blacklisted in the radio industry during the 1950s, and worked as a union organizer with the United Packinghouse Workers of America. When Elijah Muhammad started his newspaper Muhammad Speaks, he hired Durham as one of its first editors. Durham met Muhammad Ali through the Nation of Islam and helped the boxer write his 1975 autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story. Sonja Williams, professor at Howard University is soon to publish a book on this important black cultural worker titled Destined for Freedom: The Life and Times of Radio Hall of Famer Richard Durham (University of Illinois Press).

Before making his mark in radio, Durham got his start on the Illinois Writers’ Project. He first worked on a study of the black press headed by Horace Cayton, author of the landmark sociology Black Metropolis. In early 1939, Durham joined the WPA and recorded surveys of black newspapers. According to an outline, “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” was one of ten chapters for an unpublished book on the black press. While the essay is not dated, it was probably written in the late spring of 1939. Soon after, Durham was transferred to the Illinois Radio Project, where he met Oscar Brown, Jr. and Studs Terkel, and it was here that he discovered his love for radio.

Click on picture for larger image.

Click on picture for larger image.

This 29-page essay takes its title, of course, from the “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work,” campaign led by the Chicago Whip from 1929 to 1932. Durham uses this as an opener to talk about the fight against job discrimination. He quotes extensively from the Whip, Chicago Defender, and Anthony Overton’s Chicago Bee. Durham looks at coverage in the black press of A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the rise of the CIO, and the growing interest in Communism.

The original version of this essay can be found in The Illinois Writers’ Project/”Negro in Illinois” Papers (Box 41, folder 7) at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. What is attached here is a scanned image of a photocopy. Readers may find some interest in the editorial comments, although it is not clear whose handwriting it is in (Arna Bontemps, editor of The Negro in Illinois, was not hired on the WPA until late 1939). For example, on page 28 a critical comment by Durham was crossed out:

“Truly, the search for democracy in the ‘land of the free’ is a long and weary one.”

This reflects some of the censorship that undoubtedly took place on the project, most likely to avoid gaining the attention of those wishing to paint the WPA’s cultural projects as infiltrated by Communists.

In fact, the WPA’s detractors were not entirely wrong. It was during these years that Richard Durham was a member of the Communist Party and involved in the activities at the local office of the National Negro Congress, where he met his wife Clarice Durham. This is reflected in the heavily Marxist tone of the essay. “The most telling and detrimental form of discrimination,” Durham states at the outset, “is economic discrimination.”

Enjoy reading! BD