Like many of its early television counterparts, the Amos 'n' Andy television program was a direct descendent of the radio show that originated on WMAQ in Chicago on 19 March 1928, and eventually became the longest-running radio program in broadcast history. Amos 'n' Andy was conceived by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white actors who portrayed the characters Amos Jones and Andy Brown by mimicking so-called Negro dialect.
The significance of Amos 'n Andy, with its almost thirty year history as a highly successful radio show, its brief, contentious years on network television, its banishment from prime-time and subsequent years in syndication, and its reappearance in video cassette format is difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs. The position of the Amos 'n Andy show in television history is still debated by media scholars in recent books on the cultural history of American television.
Amos 'n Andy was first broadcast on CBS television in June 1951, and lasted some two years before the program was canceled in the midst of growing protest by the black community in 1953. It was the first television series with an all-black cast (the only one of its kind to appear on prime-time, network television for nearly another twenty years).
The adventures of Amos 'n Andy presented the antics of Amos Jones, an Uncle Tom-like, conservative; Andy Brown, his zany business associate; Kingfish Stevens, a scheming smoothie; Lawyer Calhoun, an underhanded crook that no one trusted; Lightnin,' a slow-moving janitor; Sapphire Stevens, a nosey, loud-mouth; Mama, a domineering mother-in-law, and the infamous Madame Queen. The basis for these characters was derived largely from the stereotypic caricatures of African-Americans that had been communicated through several decades of popular American culture, most notably, motion pictures.
The program's portrayal of black life and culture was deemed by the black community of the period as an insulting return to the days of blackface and minstrelsy. Eventually, the controversy surrounding the television version of Amos 'n Andy would almost equal that of the popularity of the radio version.
Contemporary television viewers might find it difficult to understand what all the clamor was about. Why did the Amos 'n Andy show go on to become one of the most protested of television programs?
Media historian Donald Bogel notes "Neither CBS nor the programs' creators were prepared for the change in national temperament after the Second World War ... Within black America, a new political consciousness and a new awareness of the importance of image had emerged." Though hardly void of the cruel insults and disparaging imagery of the past, Hollywood of the post World War II period ushered in an era of better roles and improved images for African-American performers in Hollywood. American motion pictures presented its first glimpses of black soldiers fighting alongside their white comrades; black entertainers appeared in sequined gowns and tuxedos instead of bandannas and calico dresses. black characters could be lawyers, teachers and contributing members of society.
Post World War II African-Americans looked upon the new medium of television with hopeful excitement. To them, the medium could nullify the decades of offensive caricatures and ethnic stereotyping so prevalent throughout decades of motion picture history. The frequent appearance of black stars on early television variety shows was met with approval from black leadership.
African-Americans were still exuberant over recent important gains in civil rights brought on by World War II. They were determined to realize improved images of themselves in popular culture. To some, the characters in Amos 'n Andy, including rude, aggressive women and weak black men were offensive. Neither The Kingfish nor Sapphire Stevens could engage in a conversation without peppering their speech with faulty grammar and mispronunciations. Especially abhorred was the portrayal of black professionals. The NAACP, bolstered by its 1951 summer convention, mandated an official protest of the program. The organization outlined a list of specific items it felt were objectionable, for example, how "every character is either a clown or a crook," "Negro doctors are shown as quacks," and "Negro lawyers are shown as crooks." As the series appeared in June 1951, the NAACP appeared in federal court seeking an injunction against its premiere. To network executives, the show was harmless, not much different from Life with Liugi, The Goldbergs, or any other ethnically oriented show of the times.
Moreover, the denunciation of Amos 'n Andy was not universal. With its good writing and talented cast, the show was good comedy, and soon became a commercial success. The reaction of the black community over this well produced and very funny program remained divided. Even the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the black community's most influential publications, which had earlier led in the protest against the motion picture Gone With the Wind, defended the show in an article appearing in June 1951.
In 1953, CBS reluctantly removed the program from the air, but not solely because of the efforts of the NAACP. As mentioned, the period featured a swiftly changing climate for race relations in the United States. Consideration for the southern market was of great concern to major advertisers. In an era when African Americans were becoming increasingly vocal in the fight against racial discrimination, large advertisers were reluctant to have their products too closely associated with black people. Fear of White economic backlash was of special concern to advertisers and television producers. The idea of "organized consumer resistance" caused advertisers and television executives to avoid appearing pro-Negro rights. One advertising agency executive, referring to blacks on television, noted in Variety, "the word has gone out, 'No Negro performers allowed.'"
Even with so much contention looming, the Amos 'n Andy show remained in syndication well into the 1960s. Currently, video tape cassettes of the episodes are widely available.
Amos Jones.........................................Alvin Childress
Andrew Hogg Brown (Andy)..........Spencer Williams, Jr.
George "Kingfish" Stevens...........................Tim Moore
Lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun......................Johnny Lee
Sapphire Stevens................................Ernestine Wade
Lightin'.................Horace Stewart (aka, Nick O'Demus)
Sapphire's Mama (Ramona Smith)....Amanda Randolph
Madame Queen..................................Lillian Randolph
Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll
June 1951-June 1953 Thursday 8:30-9:00
Widely Syndicated thereafter until 1966
Bogel, Donald. Blacks, Coons, Mullatoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film. New York: Garland, 1973.
_______________. Blacks in American Television and Film. New York: Garland, 1988.
Campbell, Edward D.C., Jr. The Celluliod South: Hollywood and the Southern Myth. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee, 1981.
Ely, Melvin Patrick. The Adventures of Amos 'n Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon. New York: The Free Press, 1991.
Friedman, Lester D. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana, Illinois and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for "blackness." Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Hughes, Langston. Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.
Marc, David and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law, America's Greatest TV Shows and and People Who Created Them. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.
Nesteby, James R. Black Images in American Films 1896 -1954: The Interplay Between Civil Rights and Film Culture. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1982.