From Jimmy Lyons to Sheela Allen, remembering Buffalo’s African-American broadcasting trailblazers

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Starting in 1948, Buffalo television for its first 18 years was a de facto — and in some cases, policy-driven — segregated medium.

WBEN-TV reporter Sheela Allen interviews Natalie Cole at the Buffalo airport, mid-1970s.

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.”

Ernie Warlick, on a 1965 trading card.

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.

John Winston, reporting on WKBW-TV in the late 1960s.

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.

Chuck Lampkin, right, with John Corbett at the Channel 4 anchor desk in the mid-1970s.

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.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Bills players stand up to racism

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The 1965 American Football League All-Star game was scheduled for 52 years ago this week in New Orleans, but it never happened.

Dave Dixon, who had been trying to bring the AFL to New Orleans, organized the game with promises that there wouldn’t be any problems in the still-segregated city. Players were promised testimonial dinners and golf tournaments, and even told to bring their families. But trouble began as players landed at the airport.

Cabs lined up for the White All-Stars, but the 22 black players weren’t so lucky. A porter called black cabbies from downtown for several players, but there were a few who were picked up by white cabbies — only to be driven out to the boonies before being ordered out of the cab. Bills fullback Cookie Gilchrist was warned by a friendly white cabbie, “Be careful in this town.”

Ten members of the AFL Champion Bills were on the East All-Star team, and Bills Head Coach Lou Saban was East coach. Four of the 10 Bills were black: Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, Butch Byrd and Ernie Warlick.

Bills quarterback Jack Kemp and linebacker Mike Stratton were also among the all-stars, and were joined by their teammate Warlick in the French Quarter. In several different places, Kemp and Stratton — both white — were allowed in, but Warlick was told with hostility that he wasn’t welcome.

In his book “The Birth of the New NFL,” Larry Felser tells the story that Warlick packed his bags after an incident the following morning.

“Warlick was able to order breakfast in the dining room of the hotel, ‘but I lost my appetite when an older woman said loud enough for me to hear, that she didn’t want to eat in the same room with monkeys.’ “

There were many other black players who had similar or worse experiences. Many didn’t want to spent the rest of the week there and play in such an environment.

There were several meetings of players over the coming days. The black players voted at one meeting to skip practice. Then there was a meeting with the game organizers and the NAACP, where Gilchrist did much of the talking.

At a larger meeting, with many players of both races, Bills tight end Warlick was nominated spokesman of the black players. It wasn’t unanimous, but the black players voted to not play.

Immediately after the meeting, Warlick told reporters that the fact that they’d been promised there wouldn’t be any segregation made it that much harder to deal with. Players were told that the better night spots, restaurants and hotels would greet all the players equally with open arms.

“Actually, this came as a complete surprise to us,” Warlick said of the way he and his teammates had been treated. “We were led to believe that we could relax and enjoy ourselves in New Orleans just like other citizens. Maybe if we had been alerted to the fact that we wouldn’t have the run of the town, we could have avoided this unpleasant situation.

“If they had told us this before, we’d have looked specifically for those cabs and sought out our entertainment in those places,” Warlick continued. “But they led us to believe everything was going to be OK. And it wasn’t.”

Kemp was the backup quarterback for the East All-Stars, had just won the AFL Championship with the Bills, and was also the president of the league’s players’ union. He and San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Ron Mix were among the white players at that final meeting. The two agreed to lead white players to stand by their teammates — but not all white players embraced the move. Patriots linebacker (and later Hall of Famer) Nick Buoniconti called the walkout a “raw deal” which “hurt the league a great deal.”

Later a Buffalo congressman, HUD Secretary and vice presidential candidate in 1996, Kemp was also influential in the negotiations to move the game to Houston, where it was played days later.

Immediately following the vote to not play, Gilchrist found a Mexican cabbie to take him to the airport, but snow in the northeast had flights delayed. News of a player revolt came on a TV in the terminal, and “Suddenly, people are all looking at me,” Gilchrist told Murray Olderman of the Jamestown Post-Journal.  “I can sense the hostility. For the first time in my life I’m scared. I’ve been brainwashed about the South.”

He finally got on a flight for New York and was comforted that he was among friends when someone asked him for an autograph.

“We weren’t out to correct anybody,’’ then-Bills cornerback Butch Byrd told the Sporting News in 2015.

“We were just thinking, ‘They’re showing us no respect. This is just pure hatred. We have to get out of here,’ ” said Byrd. “We weren’t thinking about making history, so to speak. We just knew we were treated badly, and we wanted to leave.’’

“The stand the AFL and its players took against the city of New Orleans was unprecedented,” wrote Pro Football Hall of Fame researcher Jon Kendle in a piece for the Hall of Fame’s website.  “The boycott was clearly a milestone event that went beyond the world of sports and was more of a reflection of American society at the time. It helped shine a spotlight on Congress’s ability to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proved that if America was to desegregate, the culture needed to change its mindset and adopt a more progressive view of the human race as quickly as possible.”

A man ahead of his time

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

13427954_10209523827394107_7932250703412461951_nJack Tapson passed away last weekend.

He was a photographer, who like me shared a love of Buffalo Broadcasting, worked in the field for a few decades, and knew– as it was unfolding– that he was watching something important unfolding in front of him daily.

He started at Channel 4  as a lover of photography and teen technician in the 1940s and moved onto Channel 2 where he started the news film department in the mid-1950s.

For decades, these jobs put him on the front lines of some of the really amazing things that were happening in what was then America’s 15th largest city. Behind the scenes at Buffalo’s big TV stations as well.

Through the years, he sent me dozens of photographs along with some sort of brief description of the shot. As is usually the case, many of the photos are amazing not only for the intended subject, but the background and surrounding scenery, too.

His access to free or low-cost film and developing at work, and the consistency with which he carried his still camera through various jobs he was working, give us a bit of a glimpse of what it might have been like to follow a television reporter or videojournalist on Facebook or Twitter 60 years ago. Just like someone whipping out their cellphone for a quick pic while doing their actual job, many of Jack’s photos were taken while shooting moving pictures for WGR-TV.

Importantly, he not only took these shots, he saved them all these years. Even more importantly, he then shared them, mostly with fellow historian Marty Biniasz and me.

Here are a couple of shots, with Jack’s notes and then some further explanation.

Ernie_Warlick_Jim_Castigleone__Bob_Lanier

“Here’s a classic!!! Ernie wore a size 19 shoe, Jimmie a size 6 1/2 and Bob Lanier a size 24.”

Shown: Channel 2 Sportsman & Former Buffalo Bill Ernie Warlick; Channel 2 floorman Jim Castiglione; Bennett High School & St. Bonaventure basketball star (and future NBA Hall of Famer) Bob Lanier. Late 60s.

pulaskie_day_parade_redo-Bobby-Kennedy
Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Pulaski Day, Broadway, 1964

“I received a thank you note from Kennedy after fulfilling his request to send this photo and others….similar.”

Shown: Robert Kennedy’s campaign car takes him through Buffalo’s East Side and up Broadway, 1964

Kowal__Harry_Truman_color“I shot silent footage at his arrival and departure at the Bflo. airport and S.O.F. at Canisus College.”

Shown: Buffalo Mayor Chet Kowal shaking hands with Former President Harry Truman on his way to a Canisius College speaking engagement, 1962. (S.O.F. is “sound on film,” silent film was far less expensive, so sound was only shot for news purposes when necessary.)

Details of Buffalo history aren’t all that I learned from Jack.

Jack and I had a falling out. He was insistent on something that didn’t fully make sense to me. I reasonably refuted a tad, he got passionately angry. I passive-aggressively pushed back again.

If you read through the emails, I think anyone would agree he was acting like a jerk. What I didn’t know though, was that he was really sick. Had I known, I probably would have cut the passive aggressive sort of crap. I did my best to try to make amends with him. I said all the right things, and really meant all that I said. It was too late though, as illness had taken a good grip on poor ol’Jack.

Now we weren’t close friends, I’m not even sure that we actually met in person, but knowing that I didn’t do all that I could have to aid a brother in trouble, leaves me greatly troubled. Just because he was outwardly acting like a jerk, didn’t give me permission to be jerky–less jerky, but still jerky– back.  He was sick, that was his excuse. I don’t have an excuse. Without the details, I posted about it on Facebook.

JackTapsonUpdate

As my friend Libby commented on Facebook, “That is real wisdom. (Wisdom is sometimes accompanied by an uneasy feeling.) (It never seemed that way for Andy Taylor or Cliff Huxtable, but I have found it so in real life.)”

So thanks, Jack for capturing so many fleeting Buffalo memories on film. And thanks for bearing with me while I learned a tough lesson in humility and compassion which will serve me, and the people around me, well into the future.

This page originally appeared at TrendingBuffalo.com