Tulsa TV Memories      

Media People in the 1970s Made
Major Difference in Race Relations

by Madeline (Midge) Caruthers, 4/29/2008

Sam Babcock

Sam Babcock (pic LAradio.com)

Travis Walsh

Travis Walsh

I'd like to pay tribute to some outstanding media people in Tulsa, with whom I worked many years ago, from 1971-73. There were some twenty of them, but in particular I'm referring to the Tulsa World's Managing Editor Travis Walsh, and to Sam Babcock, Sales Manager for KRMG radio.

Let me take a short detour to tell you how I came to know them.

My Palau "Survivor" experience

I graduated from TU in '62, Radio/TV major, Journalism minor. Worked a couple of years in Tulsa, and friends asked me if I'd like to move to St. Louis. Well, the idea of being on my own in a really big city appealed to me, and so I did it. I worked for a radio rep for a while, until they let him go, and then was lucky enough to get a job with Ralston Purina, as assistant editor of their company publications. It was a fine job...until something happened to my boss, and her boss wanted me to train her male replacement. Not satisfactory.

I discovered the Peace Corps had a few jobs in Mass Media, and I applied, and after a grueling battery of tests and interviews, was accepted to go very far away, to Koror, Palau, then a part of the Federated States of Micronesia. I was told in San Francisco, in the final screening, I'd never survive tough living circumstances because I was "too feminine!" They forgot I had St. Louis as training.

Spectacular scenery: CBS "Survivor: Palau" title sequence

I went through in-country training, which was quite difficult,and they meant to make it so. Almost all privacy was gone, we had language training out in the open, culture training in small groups, and tons of guys in silly safari outfits warning us not to offend local people. (By the way, Koror was featured on a "Survivor" series [Wikipedia], and now, though not credited, the Rock Islands of Koror are where I think the current "Survivor" series is taking place.)

Well, I passed the besieged-by-insects test, the drown-proofing test, the two-at-a-time outhouse test, and flew from Truk Island to what would be home, if I survived, for the next two years. My first glimpse of Koror was when I looked down from a tiny little plane to see beautiful ocean and palm trees. We got closer, and there was no airport runway -- just a wooden sign declaring "Welcome to Palau International Airport." To cut through a very long story, I was "adopted" by a widow with a very large family and a very small house, two rooms, kind of stacked on each other. No indoor toilets, an outdoor shower, no working kitchen, sleeping on the floor on mats. I was a very white face in a very brown society. As a middle-class Tulsan, this was definitely different. But my family was terrific, loving and caring and accepting, and sharing the little they had willingly with me.

Me and one of my Palauan sisters, Wilhermina
Me & Wilco. My other Palauan siblings were Sadako, Wilhermina, Naomi, Kenneth & Abais.

People in power there were eager to bid, one way or another, on who would get one of the few media volunteers.They wanted a voice. No surprise there. Conditions for working in the media were less than ideal. There were few if any phones, cars were for government workers, and people in the outer islands were isolated. I ended up finessing the U.S. government, which wanted me to work for them by training someone for three months to do their P.R. I wasn't in the Peace Corps to do government P.R. for anyone.

During that time, I applied for and got federal funds to start their first newspaper and hire and train a local staff to learn how to report news, how to write editorials, how to use art for caustic non-verbal commentary, and others to help us with the translation (it was bilingual), print it, yes, on a mimeograph, collate and staple it, usually 12 pages, and disseminate it. All on foot, I got strong legs. [Palauan language from Wikipedia]

This area had been governed by the Spanish, Germans, Japanese, and the Americans. There was great unrest, a lot of crime, a lot of alcoholism, a great deal of discontent. I eluded a gang rape only because I knew the leader. My artist was picked up after the curfew and found hanged in jail. People would try to bribe me, as politics were incredibly convoluted and, as they are everywhere,very important, and we did a very good job of staying impartial.I had great respect for my staff. And affection.

Back to Tulsa in 1969

So I arrived back in Tulsa a woman who had seen poverty, pain, and kindness at levels I had not experienced before. I was offered a job at a good P.R. firm as a "Girl Friday," a term that makes me laugh, and ended up by being a copywriter. As their termination letter said then (which you couldn't say now), words to the effect that "I had known I was a female trying to work in a male world." This was stunningly backward to me, given the responsibility I had had.

Then I applied for a job in civil and human rights, was hired, and that brings me back to where I started this story. The Community Relations Commission, part of Tulsa city government, was responsible for enforcing then generally unpopular things, like "Fair Housing," non-discrimination in hiring, firing and promotion, adherence to equal opportunity in bids for City work. I started out by working in police/community relations. But my interest and media knowledge led, after a few months, to working not with laws, but with voluntary compliance efforts.

Greenwich Village apartments radio adThis 1958 radio spot, courtesy of Henry Mark, via Steve Suttle, advertised apartments in downtown Tulsa "for colored people". (RealPlayer info)


Download MP3 (775KB)

The way blacks and other minorities were treated by both print and electronic media was a volatile subject. "Black man rapes white woman" type coverage wasn't acceptable, though that is a very blatant example of biased reporting. There were few, if any, non-white faces on TV. Housing was still very segregated. Schools, despite federal laws and desegregation efforts, stayed mostly black or white. The possibility of mandated "forced" busing efforts to integrate schools loomed large and frightening. Nationally and locally, people were on edge because of the Vietnam war, the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the riots, the urgency of the "Black Is Beautiful" movement, and so forth.

I was very glad to ask members of the media to work with us...and they came through in ways that none of us could have envisoned in the beginning. We asked the Managing Editors of the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune, The Oklahoma Eagle and Station Managers of the various radio stations to meet with us monthly. They became a coherent and cooperative force for the better for the Tulsa community. Don Ross and others at the Eagle also were involved, some more as advisors than media committee members, and in fact, I had first met them while at the P.R. firm.

Booker T. Washington High School
Booker T. Washington High School

(from GB 89) Stevo Wolfson said:

Growing up in Tulsa, I got into my fair share of trouble and was not always on the right path. Particularly, in junior high school I was constantly getting into trouble and getting kicked out of school.

It wasn't that I was a juvenile delinquent! I was a reasonably intelligent kid, but I was also an artist and I had no outlet to explore or nurture my innate talent. It was more from being bored to death from the normal school curriculum, that I ended up acting out and getting into trouble.

This was all soon to change, when Tulsa became the first city in this country to initiate a voluntary integration program at the high school level. The school was Booker T. Washington Senior High School! In the spring of 1973, when I was a Freshman at Byrd Junior High School, representatives from the Tulsa Board of Education went on a campaign to get white students to volunteer for this new and controversial program!

I was one of the first students to volunteer, with promises of a unique educational experience and that Washington was going to receive the best of everything. They even recruited the best teachers in the city to go and teach there.

This was a pivotal point in my life, for had I not gone to Washington, I may not have even graduated from high school, let alone gone on to get two college degrees.

YES! Attending Booker T. Washington was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life!!

The greatest thing that happened the first year was the school built a video studio and they got Rocky Stegman and Dino Economos to teach the class. They both had a monumental effect on me and changed the course of my life forever. They planted a seed within me that is still growing strong today!

Dino Economos
Dino Economos, 1971

The primary reason attending Washington was such a great experience was the faculty and students were there because they chose to be!

The first issue the Media Committee undertook was to examine news coverage for bias. That resulted in a consensus on what circumstances it was, or wasn't,appropriate to mention race. That led to a discussion of why blacks and others were not being employed by the mainstream media. The CRC produced a booklet for dissemination to high school students to let them know what they needed to learn if they wanted to be hired. Things really got going. How, and I don't recall whose brilliant idea it was, possibly Millard House, who was on the CRC Board and worked at a high level in education, who suggested that maybe we shouldn't just tell high school students what to study, the media could teach them. And so they did! Booker T. Washington had become a magnet school, one designed to offer the most innovative courses to attract serious students of any race, and on a weekly basis, members of the commitee taught what they knew so well. The sessions were also taped for re-use. (BTW still offers Film/video courses, don't know about other schools.)

At some point, the young people there developed a musical, called "Black Is," and one TV station taped and broadcast it. The media group also decided to offer three partial scholarships to minority members to study journalism.

$600 Sam Babcock Memorial Scholarship winners Connie Dangerfield, Janet Barrens & Karen Rice

$600 Sam Babcock Memorial Scholarship winners
Connie Dangerfield, Janet Barrens & Karen Rice

Now, finally, you may say, back to Travis Walsh and Sam Babcock. Sam, Project Chair of the Washington HS media project, died at age 41 of a heart attack during this time. The scholarships were named in his honor. Travis served as chair of the committee, and he, too, died, all too soon.

Keith Bretz, courtesy of Frank Morrow

Keith Bretz in the 1950s

I wrote and edited the CRC newsletter. I have only two copies. In one, Keith Bretz, KTUL-TV became the new chairman; Rev. Charles Jeffrey, Oklahoma Eagle editor, vice-chairman; and Ms. Fredi Boone, TAAG, treasurer.

[1972 CRC newsletter story about the "National Christian Party" rally with Reverend Robert Miles, National Chaplain for the United Klans of America, at Tulsa's Civic Center: "TO HELL WITH YOU from the KKK"]

I also recall Tom Goodgame and Ken Greenwood as being involved, but I don't remember all the others, agencies, media people, CRC Board, Board of Education people, teachers, who helped. I don't want to say something overly sentimental, but you can bet when I think of them all, I smile, but there's a few tears over the death of two outstanding men. I rarely see the word "integrity" used in relationship to the media, but they had it. Big-time.

To the future?

I left the CRC after the City Commission refused to allow a federal grant I had written, with the help of many others, to fund a Culture Sharing Center. It would have given free training, after school, to high school students who wanted to learn music, art, dance, drama and mime. The proposal, which I had checked thoroughly with the funding agency, was for $150,000.00, a hefty chunk of change in 1973. It would have been a great way for kids to come together and learn about each other through these artistic venues.

I moved out of state and next became, after a few years, director of media for a major federal grant. And moved on, and on.

So, I'm wondering, what happened to those early pioneering efforts? Did they help? How is Tulsa now? Is coverage fair? Is housing less segregated? Does the Tulsa media better reflect minority groups and women than they did back then?

I know from where I live, far from Tulsa, that things still look pretty complicated racially. I don't know how to assess that.

Madeline (Midge) Caruthers, 4/29/2008

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