By Steve Cichon
Starting in 1948, Buffalo television for its first 18 years was a de facto — and in some cases, policy-driven — segregated medium.
During World War II and the years immediately following the war, Buffalo’s black population grew quickly both in real numbers and as a percentage of the overall population.
Eventually, there were a small handful of radio shows that catered to African-American tastes and interests, in much the same way Buffalo’s Polish and Italian populations had their own radio shows.
In 1968, Courier-Express Radio & TV reporter Jack Allen wrote about the need for the training and development of media talent from local minority communities, pointing to Buffalo’s first media star of Western New York’s African-American community as an example of a success story.
Jimmy Lyons was born and raised in Buffalo and starting working in theaters and nightclubs as an entertainer at age 16. He went to West Virginia State College and UB, and he served as a lieutenant in the Army in Italy during World War II. In 1955, he joined WXRA Radio, then in Kenmore, with a rhythm and blues show called “The Lyons Den.” He moved to WWOL and then WUFO when that station signed on as “The Voice of the Negro Community” in 1961.
Allen called Lyons “a man of principle and talent who has the respect of the broadcasters who worked with him in this area” and “a respected native of Buffalo with a fine background of accomplishment, an intelligent viewpoint and capable broadcasting techniques, and a man who has long had his finger upon the pulse of the Negro community.”
But that was radio. There wasn’t a regularly scheduled black presenter or entertainer on television until Ernie Warlick joined the staff at WGR-TV Ch. 2 in 1966. At first, he was the station’s weekend sportscaster. A few months later, he became the station’s nightly 11 p.m. sports anchor.
Warlick was a fan favorite during his years as a tight end for the Buffalo Bills. On the field, he’s remembered as a target for a Jack Kemp touchdown pass in the 1965 AFL Championship Game.
Off the field, he was known as a gentle giant with a warm smile. His calm demeanor made him the obvious choice as the spokesman for the black players who voted to boycott the 1965 AFL All-Star game in New Orleans after they experienced racism in the city.
Being able to talk to the reporters in such a tension-filled situation, but also talking football with his customers at the two “Henry’s Hamburgers” stands he owned in Buffalo, gave Warlick the experience needed to be hired by WGR Radio for daily segments after his playing career had ended.
With those radio spots going well, Warlick began hosting “The Quarterback Club” on Channel 2, and eventually he anchored sports during the station’s newscasts and breaking Buffalo’s TV color barrier.
Shortly after Warlick joined the sports staff at Channel 2, Irv Weinstein hired John Winston for Eyewitness News at Channel 7.
Winston had spent years as a writer in medical research before joining the reporting staff at WKBW-TV, where he was Buffalo’s first black television news reporter.
He won several awards for his in-depth reporting on issues facing Buffalo’s African-American community in the years immediately following the 1967 protests of the oppression and living conditions of many in Buffalo’s black neighborhoods.
Winston left Channel 7 in 1977 to join the communications staff at the NFTA.
When Chuck Lampkin first came to work at WBEN-TV in 1970, he was best known to many Buffalonians as a jazz drummer who’d accompanied such stars as Dizzy Gillespie on the road.
At Channel 4, he was in a rotation of news anchors, becoming the first black man to regularly anchor local TV newscasts in Western New York.
Before the term was in common usage, Lampkin was also the station’s consumer reporter. He’d take a cameraman — such as Mike Mombrea or Bill Cantwell — to the shop or office that had ripped off a viewer, and he’d usually get the problem resolved.
Lampkin was in the anchor seat several times during one of the definitive events in Buffalo history, the Blizzard of ’77.
Sheela Allen was a television pioneer on two separate tracks — not only was she among the first women to work as a general assignment reporter, she was among the first African-Americans, as well. She was Buffalo’s first female African-American television news personality when she got to WBEN-TV Ch. 4 in 1972.
At Channel 2, June Bacon-Bercey was a science reporter for WGR-TV Channel 2, when she was drafted to take over evening weather anchor duties. Bacon-Bercey, who’d later receive her doctorate in meteorology, was both the first woman and the first African-American to earn the American Meteorological Society seal, crediting her worthiness as a broadcaster and as a scientist.
While African-Americans remain underrepresented as far as a population percentage in local television broadcasts, the black journalists who have worked in Buffalo often go on to more high-profile work.
Les Trent, who was an anchor and reporter at WGRZ-TV in the 1980s, is now a correspondent for Inside Edition.
Pam Oliver, who has been a network NFL and NBA sideline reporter for 25 years, was a reporter at Channel 4.
Jericka Duncan, who was also a reporter at Channel 4, is now regularly seen on the CBS Evening News, as a correspondent on the newscast anchored by Tonawanda native Jeff Glor.