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New Inventions: The TV and Telephone

Of all the inventions that have shaped modern American society, the television and telephone are among the most significant. For those living in Independence Heights, the impact of each of these two inventions is quite memorable.

_____Sarah Jenkins has fond recollections of her family’s first television and telephone. “My sister had one and we would go there in the evening and all sit around her television,” she says with a smile. It was another one of Mrs. Jenkins’ sisters who purchased the family’s first telephone. She explains that this sister lived across the street from her, so “if we got a phone call, we’d go over to my sister’s and answer the phone . . . She’d call us from across the street.”

_____Jonas & Arlecie Bolton clearly remember how the television transformed Independence Heights. When asked about television’s impact, Mrs. Bolton laughs as she says, “It was so much quieter [before TV]. You knew where the children were.” At the same time, the Boltons recall their disappointment that television did not reflect the diversity of their community. Mr. Bolton says that he “hoped that someday [there] would be more” African American actors on television shows.

_____Vivian Seals’ memories of television are quite similar to the Boltons’. The lack of African Americans on television, says Mrs. Seals, “bothered me to the extent that I knew we had [black] people who were qualified to go on TV, but it took them a long time to acknowledge it, and to take part.”

_____Furthermore, according to Mrs. Seals, when African Americans were on television, she “objected to the way [television shows] portrayed black people. They were either ‘Amos and Andy’ or ‘Stepin Fetchit’—a clown. [Television shows] always made us look bad. We always had a maid role or something where you were acting silly . . . They never portrayed blacks as a people of culture . . . and it was a long time before black actors and actresses were recognized as being really actresses [and actors] who could win awards in movies.”

_____Although it began as a radio show, Amos and Andy became one of the most historically significant television series as the first TV show to have an all-black cast. But the show’s history was not all positive, as it portrayed characters in stereotyped images while African Americans were trying to break down those very stereotypes.

_____The original radio series was created by two white actors, who played all of the “black” characters, including the two main characters–Amos Jones, the owner of a taxi company and Andy Brown, Amos’ zany business partner. With the increased popularity of television, Amos and Andy became a television series in 1951.

_____Although in some sense it was an accomplishment for black television actors and actresses, at the same time, Amos and Andy sparked controversy among African Americans who felt it promoted racial stereotypes and portrayed all blacks as fumbling, illiterate, or criminal.

_____In 1953, Amos and Andy was taken off the air amid increasing protest from blacks and fear that whites would reject products advertised on the show.14 It would be twenty years before another show with an all black cast would be on prime time network television

_____Lincoln Perry, better known as Stepin Fetchit, was a successful black actor who made more than 40 movies in just 50 years. In many ways, he was the model of success, as he became the first black millionaire in the United States. But he angered many African Americans because of the type of “black” character that he portrayed. He often played wide-eyed, lazy, slovenly and inarticulate characters, thus reinforcing an unfair stereotype of the behavior of African Americans.

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