[NFBV-Potomac-Announce] Blind History Lady

John Halverson jwh100 at outlook.com
Fri Feb 16 15:46:37 UTC 2024

This is the article from Peggy Chong which was mentioned at our last chapter meeting.

From: The Blind History Lady <theblindhistorylady-gmail.com at shared1.ccsend.com<mailto:theblindhistorylady-gmail.com at shared1.ccsend.com>>
Sent: Thursday, February 8, 2024 7:03 AM
To: sjh300 at outlook.com<mailto:sjh300 at outlook.com>
Subject: Reminder: Bad to Better

Bad to Better
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Hello to all!

While you are reading this, I am in Washington D. C., researching more blind men and women for this column. In future months, I will share what I find. Today begins Black History Month. Here is an offering for you.

Two Black children sat in their shabby dorm room at the Florida Institute for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Department (FIDBCD) campus in St. Augustine. Best friends from the beginning, both lived in the segregated world of the 1930s, even as students at the blind school. Living at the FIDBCD most of the year. These students formed life-long friendships that were just as strong a bond or even more so than family.

“Ray, I’m going to be a radio announcer and I’m going to play your music. I’m going to be the one to introduce you,” said little Joe.

Then little Joe went into his deep announcer’s voice. “CBS radio presents the music of Ray Charles, his piano, and his orchestra!”

“You really going to do that, man? Ray asked.

“You’re right!” Joe said with pride. The conversation stuck in each others’ memories until their deaths, Ray in 2004 and Joe in 2011.

Ray’s friend was Joseph H. Walker, born December 16, 1930, in Florida, the son of Jack Anderson and Irene Wilson-Walker. Joe grew up in the Black neighborhoods of Miami. His father was a laborer and painter. His mother worked as a maid.

Teachers and friends dismissed the boys for having such grandiose dreams that could never come true for most people, especially when they were Black and blind.

Ray Charles left the blind school at age 16, in 1945 to pursue a career in music. Joe graduated in 1952, at the age of 21, to pursue his radio career. If Joe ever got to announce his friend’s music over the air, no record remains, but the two remained friends all through their lives.

Blinded from infancy, Joe found beauty and inspiration through sound. The family had a radio. Little Joe listened to it eagerly as often as he could.

The first boxing match Joe heard was on the radio between Joe Lewis and Max Baer in 1935. He was so impressed with the announcer’s tone, which created excitement and made four-year-old Joe feel like he was sitting in the first row. Joe imitated the announcer, repeating and replaying from memory the fight night after night after bedtime. His father would wake up and tell him to cut out the noise or else. So, he went to practice in the bathroom. That is what I want to do when I grow up.

St. Augustine was more than 320 miles from his parent’s home. There was no funding to send students home for long weekends. Many of the Black students only went home during the long winter break. When Joe entered the school there were two full-time and two part-time teachers for the 34 Black students. The school for white, deaf, and blind children had 14 full-time staff with 71 students. The Black students knew they were not expected by the school to go to college or find an important job. They were trained to be broom makers.

When the school for the white blind discarded items, they gave items to the Colored School. Dishes, cracked and chipped, worn clothes, broken furniture. Books and old magazines were handed down to the Colored blind school. Many times, the braille dots were worn down, making it frustrating to read. For students like Joe, the more difficult the task just meant he had to try harder or find another way. Some of the FIDBCD students accepted their ‘place” in society and lived according to others’ expectations. Joe could not avoid the racism he faced every day, but he did not let it impact his dreams. (The school did not desegregate until 1967.)

During the Depression, the FIDBCD benefited from the Works Progress Administration projects with gifts of braille books in the small library that grew to just over 900 volumes to serve all grades. Since most braille books are at least two volumes, the crowded library did not have a wide variety in their collection. Joe read what interested him, more than once, enjoying new books with their clear dots. A 32-volume of the braille dictionary for the Black students was not donated until 1951.

The two friends challenged each other with learning braille and typing. By the age of nine, Ray accurately typed over 70 words a minute. Joe tried to type as fast. Both read and wrote braille quickly and accurately. Ray found a beat-up old piano at the school and spent his free hours teaching himself to play. Joe loved to listen to Ray’s music. Each stimulated the other’s drive to reach his dreams.

In 1949, while still in high school, Joe began his broadcasting career on the Ebony Express as a sports commentator on the WFEC in Miami. Even though still a kid, he was given a seat in the Negro Press Box at the sold-out opening of the New Miami Stadium in the fall of 1949. Not only were the press segregated, but the Black fans were relegated to a colored section of the stadium, smaller than the white section.

During the summer of 1950, Joe had two spots on WTTT radio, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. At 7 pm he did sports commentary on the Sepian Hour till 7:45. At 8:30 he spun records. He called himself “The Mighty Moron.”

He took notes, labeled items at the radio studios, and wrote his scripts for his programs in braille. Joe graduated from the school for the blind in 1952. He worked for another year at WFEC hosting “The Glory Hour” from 12:15 to 1 pm. In the evenings he co-hosted sports commentary with Herman Walton. No full-time job, but he was on the air!

On June 15, 1955, Joe moved to WBMB in Miami for bigger opportunities. His loyal listeners followed him from WFEC. Some claimed that Joe was the major reason for WBMB’s success. Joe had a show called, The Old Ship of Zion, from 6 am to 9 am. He had a sports program, from 1 pm-2 pm. Although most of his gigs were not sports related, he managed to find a way to get in a piece of sports commentary into many of his shows.

In January 1957, he was the Gospel Blind Boy on Miami’s Black-owned WMBM. While on the air in April of 1957, someone brought to Joe’s attention that a woman, crippled with arthritis needed a wheelchair. Joe set out and got her the needed chair within a few days.

That was Joe. He was no better than anyone else, and no worse. When he could, he helped those in need. He treated everyone as his equal, from the studio executives, the sports legends he interviewed to the janitor or the ushers at the ball parks. He had a kind word for everyone he met. He remembered almost everyone he met and something about them to make the next meeting special for his new friend.

“Don’t let your handicap be your burden, let it be your strength.” Joe told blind people who asked him how to become an announcer. He said the same to many sighted people who asked for the same advice.

After stints at stations in St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans, Joe moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1969. His career took off. He attended the sports events, pushing his way through the crush of reporters to get his interviews. Even when he came to the locker room behind other reporters, Joe came through the door and with his deep, powerful voice called out the athlete he wanted to interview. Local reporters knew Joe was blind, but out-of-town reporters at the games did not. His self-assured presence and dedication for getting the job done right quickly gained him the respect of others.

Joe landed full-time jobs as station sports director and talk show host. He did the sports news daily. In the beginning, Joe walked with other reporters to the field. After his first marriage in 1954, his wife sometimes was his sighted guide/spotter. Mostly he was just part of the press crowd. When youngest son, Joe Jr. became an adult, he worked with his dad as a spotter. In later years, Joe carried a cassette tape recorder around his neck in part to take notes, but he often used a segment of his recorded interviews on the next sports cast, often beating his fellow reporters with a soundbite.

During sports broadcasts, interviews, or just casual conversations, Joe’s knowledge of all things sports was encyclopedic. Many debated with Joe over who they thought would be the best athlete this year but when it came to stats from previous years for any team or athlete, Joe was always right. For the many upcoming reporters Joe mentored, they were in awe of his memory, professionalism, and ability to keep everything in perspective.

He was honored many times in his career. Joe was cited for his sports ability by the 100% Wrong Club and inducted into the 100% Right Club. In 1977, the Georgia General Assembly honored Joe for his achievements. In 1984, he was awarded Sportscaster of the Year and in 1986 was awarded Broadcaster of the Year. Joe was also a recipient of the Pioneer Award in Journalism in 1985. Other honors included the Auburn Avenue Research Library and AT&T for his career in radio broadcasting.

In a later interview, Joe was asked what he thought his greatest accomplishment was. The reporter was surprised to hear the answer.

“I think my greatest accomplishment in broadcasting came when I was in New Orleans,' Walker says. 'In the early days, there was no emphasis on news at black stations. It was all on music.

I was a DJ then, but instead of ripping 30 seconds of news, I'd do five minutes. I got complaints from the woman who kept the logs and other people at the station. But about that time, people started calling in and saying, 'I like Joe Walker' or 'I like the way he brings the news.

'Then other DJs started doing it and finally the station started a news department. I taught the Black audience in New Orleans the value of news.”

Peggy Chong is the 2023 Jacob Bolotin Award Winner.

To schedule The Blind History Lady for a presentation for your business, church or community group, email; theblindhistorylady at gmail.com<mailto:theblindhistorylady at gmail.com>

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