Entertainment Television

She Was Oprah Earlier than Oprah

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Alice Travis was a seasoned reporter when she auditioned in 1975 for the ABC present that might change into “Good Morning America.”

Travis, who was then 32, had already co-hosted two major-market information exhibits: “Panorama” (alongside Maury Povich), in Washington D.C., and “AM New York.” The Black-owned weekly newspaper New York Amsterdam Information as soon as described her as “one of many brightest and brainiest of the undiscovered teevee personalities.”

So she was unprepared for what she stated a community government informed her after the audition. “‘Fairly frankly your shade is to not your benefit,’” Travis recounted over lunch in Manhattan this previous summer season. “Surprising statements, however after some time they now not shocked.”

Travis was among the many first wave of Black tv newswomen employed nationwide, a part of an early effort to diversify American newsrooms within the wake of the protests and racial conflicts of the Sixties. Whereas her rejection by the ABC morning present was painful, what she did subsequent was groundbreaking: She turned the primary Black girl to host her personal nationwide speak present.

The syndicated “For You … Black Girl” premiered in June 1977, the primary nationwide speak present created for, because the title prompt, a Black feminine viewers. From a set in a New York studio designed to appear to be a snug lounge, Travis mentioned subjects like self-fulfillment, relationships, magnificence, politics and parenting as they utilized particularly to Black ladies, often with notable figures. Her friends included Toni Morrison, the activist Florynce Kennedy and the actress Jayne Kennedy. Muhammad Ali, then the heavyweight champion, got here on to debate his relationships with ladies, and his often benighted attitudes about them.

“He’s boastful, chauvinistic and pleasant,” Travis informed The New York Instances in a 1978 interview concerning the episode.

In a means she was Oprah earlier than Oprah, a Black girl discussing the information of the day and interviewing celebrities earlier than a nationwide TV viewers. In keeping with Charles W. Gerber, the son of the “For You” creator Charles S. Gerber, Oprah Winfrey at one level thanked his father for placing the present on the air. (Winfrey declined to remark by means of a spokeswoman.)

Travis’s TV profession started with a lot promise however ended up being comparatively temporary. She got here up in an period when Black anchorwomen appeared to be solidifying their place as a part of the way forward for information programming, and on the top of her reputation, in 1978, Travis was broadcast to over 70 p.c of Black America, in keeping with information stories on the time. However she stepped away from the business solely a decade after her broadcast profession started.

As a Black mass media researcher and the creator and curator of the Black Movie Archive, I used to be surprised that I had by no means heard of Travis till I stumbled upon tapes of “For You … Black Girl” earlier this yr on the Library of Congress, the place I’m presently a scholar in residence.

As I watched grainy 1977 clips within the library’s Transferring Picture Analysis Middle, Travis’s mind, energetic smile and bubbly demeanor appeared to leap off the display. I made a decision I needed to be taught extra about her. A number of weeks later, she sat throughout from me at a restaurant for her first interview in years.

Over lunch, she talked about her profession as a part of a convention of Black ladies being ignored for his or her accomplishments. “Who’re these unknown Black ladies who stroll amongst us and who with out recognition march into eternity by means of the multitude of lives they’ve touched?” she stated.

NOW 80, TRAVIS GREW UP in New Orleans in a multigenerational dwelling constructed by her carpenter grandfather. In 1965 she graduated from Immaculata School (now Immaculata College) in Pennsylvania with a sociology diploma, planning to work in well being providers. However a dialog with a Metromedia radio government named Allan Hotlen put her on the published path as a substitute.

“I do assume that we have now inclinations, little voices in us that inform us the place we’re purported to go,” Travis stated. “I’ve this need to grasp the world round me.”

In 1970 she turned an anchor for “Panorama” after which, three years later, she moved to “AM New York.” She went on to check out for the “At this time” present and developed a number of speak present pilots earlier than “For You” gave her the possibility to strike out on her personal.

Like many different Black journalists of her technology, Travis bought her begin after the discharge of a scathing 1968 report from the Kerner Fee, a bunch fashioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson to search out options to the nation’s civil unrest. Dorothy Tucker, a longtime reporter for Chicago’s CBS affiliate and a former president of the Nationwide Affiliation of Black Journalists, stated the “main takeaway” from the Kerner Fee Report “was a recognition that our nation is shifting towards two societies: one Black, one white, separate and unequal.”

“The media and its lack of protection coping with racial points was additionally held accountable for creating the issues outlined by the fee,” she defined. “That wasn’t misplaced on white information managers who have been pressured to acknowledge the necessity to deliver range to their traditionally white newsrooms. The Kerner report opened the door of alternatives that had been unfairly closed to Black journalists for too lengthy.”

The report, together with the efforts of Black organizers who demanded entry to the airwaves, led to an inflow of Black expertise into newsrooms in addition to a flourishing of Black public affairs applications. Reveals like “Black Journal,” a public tv sequence produced by New York’s WNET; “Say Brother,” produced by WGBH in Boston; and WNET’s “Soul!” explored Black inventive and political life, publicized inside debates and showcased Black chance onscreen.

Whereas exhibits like “Basic Black,” the successor to “Say Brother,” endure, others ended as consideration on civil rights points pale and funding dried up. “For You” arrived close to the top of this motion, in 1977, however there wasn’t a lot of a blueprint — whereas performers like Della Reese and Barbara McNair had hosted selection exhibits for a nationwide viewers, there had not been a nationally syndicated speak present hosted by or conceived particularly for Black ladies.

From the start, Travis’s objective was to deal with her viewers with respect and to current a nuanced portrait of recent Black womanhood — each issues that she felt tv had largely denied Black ladies. Celebrities apart, the present introduced on friends from many various professions — child-care professionals, psychologists, lecturers, hairdressers — and she or he centered Black ladies’s points with the pleasant intimacy of a cellphone name between girlfriends.

Black ladies on TV “are often portrayed as simplistic, sensuous or over‐maternal, by no means as having to take care of numerous ranges of complexity,” Travis informed The Instances again then. “I log out every program with the expression, ‘There are not any extra coloured women; the woman is Black.’

“‘Woman’ is a phrase denied us,” she continued, “besides, ‘The cleansing woman is coming.’”

“For You” was produced by a Black husband-and-wife staff, Fred and Felicidad Dukes, and employed a number of Black manufacturing staffers. Gerber, the creator, was the white president of a manufacturing firm, Gerber/Carter Communications, that made a number of specials aimed toward Black audiences.

“My father’s inspiration for it is a robust, robust perception in inequality and fairness,” stated his son, Charles W. Gerber, who was a manufacturing assistant on “For You.” (He’s presently the chief government of Triumph Worldwide, a monetary providers firm.) “He recognized this want as a result of there was not one thing of the type.”

“For You” introduced Travis into the higher echelons of Black fame for a time. Maya Angelou and Stephanie Mills, amongst others, honored her at a gala forward of the premiere of the second season. She had lunches with James Baldwin and dinners at Toni Morrison’s kitchen desk; she befriended Ray Charles.

She additionally acquired notes of gratitude from Black ladies throughout the nation. “Folks have been saying, ‘You observed us!’” Travis recalled over lunch. “It was nearly as if massive swaths of individuals have been mesmerized by the truth that there was this program of their honor.”

Her run on “For You” was in the end short-lived, nonetheless. A dispute over a distant shoot that went awry ultimately led to Travis’s contract being purchased out and her leaving the present. When her final taped episode of “For You” aired in 1979, it was successfully the top of her broadcasting profession.

There have been different provides. However “conscious that the ‘At this time’ present and ‘Good Morning America,’ the crown jewels, weren’t within the playing cards for me throughout that period, I reasoned it was an excellent time to think about remarrying and beginning a household,” Travis stated. “My organic clock was ticking.”

“For You” was retooled and renamed “At this time’s Black Girl.” Hosted by the singer and actress Freda Payne, it ran till 1983 — just a few years earlier than the morning program “AM Chicago,” because of the rising reputation of its host, was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Present” in 1985. That present would go nationwide in 1986 and change into the highest-rated daytime speak present in American historical past.

“For You … Black Girl” is usually forgotten. After Travis left, she went into trend, making a line of merchandise that includes her slogan (“The woman is Black!”) — her purses have been ultimately carried by retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue. She additionally had a baby, a son, and went on to change into a profitable communications guide.

“Folks neglect Alice’s title,” stated Barry Kluger, who oversaw publicity for “For You” and went on to senior government positions at MTV, USA Networks and elsewhere. He stated “For You” undeniably broke floor, even when the present and its host hadn’t acquired their due credit score.

Travis believes the erasure of Black cultural historical past is intentional. “Once you scale back the Black expertise to nothing however a mirrored image on slavery, that’s what you get,” she stated.

However she additionally made clear that she nonetheless lives by her former sign-off sentiment: “The woman is Black!” What was as soon as a sort of catchphrase has, within the time since, change into a private motto and rallying cry.

“Allow us to tune out the rhetoric of hate,” she wrote in an e-mail after our interview. “Allow us to rejoice in our wit and ingenuity. Let our habits and bearing show the comportment anticipated of the ladies of substance who we’re.”

Maya S. Cade is the creator and curator of Black Movie Archive and a scholar-in-residence on the Library of Congress.