J.D. Lewis died in February 2007, but he left a legacy that won’t be forgotten.
As we enter February, which is designated African-American history month, it’s a great time to honor J.D. Lewis, Jr. He was among the first African-American employed by Capitol Broadcasting.
Now that wasn’t his only first, he was in the first class of black Marines. They were called the Montfort Point Marines, so-called because that was the area of Camp Lejeune where they trained.
The Marine Corps was the last armed service division to accept blacks. In fact the Commandant was ordered to do so by Presidential decree.
The U.S. Senate recently passed legislation to award the congressional Gold Medal to the Montfort Point Marines, granting long-overdue recognition. Senator Kay R. Hagan (D-N.C.) led the effort to pass the measure to honor the men with the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress in time for the Marine Corps’ 236th anniversary this year.
“These men, based out of North Carolina in WWII, served our country with courage and dedication, even in the face of discrimination and intolerance” Hagen said.
Lewis was a graduate of the famous Morehouse College and most of his classmates on the eve of World War II decided to go to Tuskegee to become pilots. He elected to become a Marine because it offered him a chance to come back to North Carolina and be closer to his girlfriend. (They married right after his basic training session).
He served in a radar tracking unit during the war, later establishing his own radio & TV repair shop.
Fred Fletcher, son of CBC founder A.J. Fletcher, heard about a fellow who called Negro League baseball games over the PA and was quite impressed. He hired Lewis to D.J. a radio program on WRAL radio.
When the company decided to apply to the FCC for a television license…one of the selling points was that they would produce a minority hosted music/dance show to be called Teenage Frolics. It was to be hosted by J.D. Lewis, Jr. who was a decorated veteran. This was a courageous action for a company to undertake in the “Jim Crow” south.
Teenage Frolics, based on our research was the first locally produced program in the country hosted by a Black or Negroes, as they were called at the time. Now this was a decade before “Soul Train” the show thought to be the first of its genre in the U.S.
Most people think that Don Cornelius, who died on Wednesday, February 1, 2012, and who produced & hosted “Soul Train” had that honor. That is not so; it was our own J.D. Lewis and Teenage Frolics.
Frolics provided a window into black youth culture and music to all of the viewers. It also gave black teenagers a sense of pride and a new appreciation of their style and dance. Some of the big names in music would drop in to promote a local concert or new album.
The show even had a live band for a period. The band was led by Irving Fuller and some of our own production crew members joined the group and went on to play for other big names: James “Boccie” Harmon with the Four Tops, Clarence “Frog” Leonard with Janis Joplin, and Ben Vick Alston played briefly for James Brown.
Lewis had a side business as a PA announcer at High School and college games. Many civic organizations would have him emcee their galas. I’m sure he had a collection of tuxedo’s and tails. He built a sound truck and would ride around southeast Raleigh promoting various events, and even urging people to vote.
Lewis died on February 17, 2007. Among many honors during his life, he also received posthumous induction into the Raleigh Hall of Fame in 2010.
Since WRAL has been receiving inquiries from time to time, we placed the half-hour special called “J.D. Lewis: A Broadcast Pioneer” on WRAL.com. The special aired in 1997.
Thanks to WRAL-TV’s Clarence Williams for this capcom story & to WRAL.com for this capcom photo.