First of all, I must give all credit to architecture and cultural critic, photographer and executive director for the Chicago Central Area Committee, Lee Bey, who wrote on his NPR radio/WBEZ-FM Chicago blog today about the short-lived TV series, Bird of the Iron Feather, which is considered to be the first black soap opera ever on television.
And if you’ve never heard of it, that’s completely understandable. The show was a local production made by Chicago’s local PBS station, WTTW (long before PBS became PBS), back some 43 years ago, in 1970. And to say that it was a sensation is putting it mildly. The show was hot and the talk of the town.
First of all, here was a regular TV series that dealt head on with racism, poverty, corruption and the antagonistic relationship between black people and the police, that was broadcast in Chicago, which was then, and is still called, “the most racially segregated city in America”.
The show, which aired three times a week, was created by Richard Durham, who, at the time, was the editor of Muhammad Speaks, which was the Nation of Islam’s official newspaper back when the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was still alive. So I think it’s pretty obvious where the show was coming from.
It featured a slew of local black talent, both in front of and behind the cameras as actors, writers and directors, and premiered in January 1970. Not surprisingly, it became a huge ratings hit for WTTW and was picked up by other PBS stations across the county.
And in case you’re wondering, the title of the show comes from a Frederick Douglass 1847 speech, in which, comparing black people to birds, said: “birds that survived genocide are birds for the hunter’s gun, but a bird of Iron feathers unable to fly for freedom.”
In fact the show became so popular and talked about that even a Hollywood production company wanted to produce a feature film version of the series. However it shouldn’t be surprising that the success of the show was short-lived.
Iron Feather was funded by a $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation for a 21 episode run, but once the money ran out, so did the show. Though the Foundation considered re-funding the show for more episodes it decided not to.
The program has been, since that time, mainly forgotten, except for TV historians and Lee Bey (and me of course), and most of its episodes have been presumably either lost or destroyed, except for one which has been found and posted up on YouTube.
Take a look for yourself and, yes before you say it, the acting is stiff and the production values are meager. But we’re talking early 1970’s local PBS production values. However, it’s the content that counts…