Sankofa Studies

WERD – Then and Now

May 29, 2019

I have lived in the Metro Atlanta area for about 15 years and I consider it home. One of the things I love most about Atlanta is its rich Black history.  Recently, I accompanied my son on a group outing – a walking tour of Sweet Auburn.  Y’all know I love history, so this trip was right up my alley.  As we started the tour, I immediately began to kick myself.  How could I have not known about all of this? As we walked, the history got richer and richer. I learned so much during the tour (which I will blog about later) but right now, I want to tell y’all all about WERD, the first Black-owned radio station in America… and it’s right in the Sweet Auburn district. 

So, we are walking and the tour guide is talking and we take a left off of the main street.  Our guide tells us that we are about to go to the building where WERD was. That’s cool. But, before we go there, he mentions that WERD is on one end of Auburn, while the Atlanta Daily World, one of the oldest and most influential newspapers in America, is at the other end. That’s what I call mass communication!  I mean…that’s the equivalent of Black Twitter! They were able to get all of their news out quickly because they literally had mechanisms on both ends of Auburn. I thought that was cool. 

Anywho. We walk towards WERD and the guide tells us that there’s also a Madam CJ Walker Museum in the building. Say what?! How is there a Madam CJ Walker Museum in Atlanta and I have never heard of it?? *le sigh* We walk into the WERD building and it was magnificent. It isn’t grand like the Taj Mahal or anything like that, but it was grand in many other ways.  

Mr. Ricci greeted us. He is the owner of the building that used to house WERD.  Mr. Ricci welcomed us and was ready to share the story of the building. Throughout the years, the building had been used for many things – including a hair salon. Mr. Ricci thought that was what he was buying. After the purchase, he found out that it used to be WERD – the place where MLK broadcasted his sermons. He then found out that it had previously been one of the beauty salons that Madam CJ Walker herself used to work in – one of only two left in the country!  So, Mr. Ricci took it upon himself to preserve the place. He even has some of the tools that Madam CJ Walker used on display. What I loved so much was that before he even started talking about Madam CJ Walker, he told the story of Annie Turnbo Malone, who actually made millions before Madam CJ Walker and who employed and mentored Madam CJ Walker. We have to acknowledge all of history and he didn’t let us forget that. Besides the tools, there’s original WERD equipment. And Mr. Ricci had vinyl for days in that little building. It was majestic. I could probably spend an entire day going through all of the records he has on display and talking to him.  And another historical tidbit – the SCLC office is on the other side of the wall. I live! 

Today, you can still hear WERD online, where Mr. Ricci plays “all vintage, all vinyl, all the time.” There was so much history there. If those walls could talk… 

If you are ever in the Sweet Auburn area, make sure to drop by and see Mr. Ricci.  It was certainly one of the highlights of our tour. 

Here’s a link to a story CNN did on Mr. Ricci and WERD in 2016.

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