Amos ‘n’ Andy: Television’s First Black Sitcom

June 28, 1951, proved to be more than just another hot summer night of programming for the relatively new medium called television.  The date marked the CBS debut of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a situational comedy (sitcom).  The outrageously funny but controversial program was the first ever television sitcom with an “all-Black” cast, making it the forerunner to Black television sitcoms aired over the past seven decades.

Set in Harlem, New York, Amos ‘n’ Andy focused on the life of George (Kingfish) Stevens (Tim Moore), who had a knack for schemes to make fast and easy money.  As leader of the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge, Kingfish’s antics often involved his lodge brothers, specifically Andy Brown (Spencer Williams, Jr.), his best friend.  Although Andy was the perennial “sitting duck,” the gullible, cigar-smoking, derby hat-wearing rotund brother of the lodge kept coming back for more, earning the dubious words from the Kingfish, “You big dummy!”

The so-called “brilliant schemes” often landed Kingfish in hot water, especially with his no-nonsense wife, Sapphire (Ernestine Wade), who was backed by her mother, Ramona Smith (Amanda Randolph), who never liked Kingfish anyway.  To get out of the mess he created, Kingfish would shout his classic plea to Andy: “Holy mackerel, Andy!  We all got to stick together in dis heah thing…remember, we is brothers in that great fraternity called the Mystic Knights of the Sea!”

Another member of this groundbreaking all-Black ensemble was cab driver Amos Jones (Alvin Childress).   Although his character’s name was part of the show’s title, his roles were often not reflected in the show’s plots.  He was, however, the voice of reason as he narrated the show’s episodes.

Rounding out the television show’s cast were Lightenin’ (Nick Steward), the slow-talking, even slower-moving janitor; Madam Queen (Lillian Randolph), Andy’s girlfriend; Henry Van Porter (Jester Harrison), a black socialite; and Algonquin J. Calhoun (Johnny Lee), the animated and colorful lawyer who legally defended the Kingfish’s many schemes that backfired.

The first season of Amos ‘n’ Andy was extremely popular, earning an A.C. Nielsen rating that ranked the show No. 13, ahead of such white television programs as the Goodyear Television Playhouse and The Lone Ranger.

While television audiences of Amos ‘n’ Andy grew, the show drew the ire of civil rights groups, including the NAACP.  The organizations felt the sitcom created and fostered false stereotypes about Black people.  With mounting pressures from civil rights advocates, CBS canceled the show after 78 original episodes, the last airing on June 11, 1953.

Reruns, however, continued on various local CBS television affiliates until 1962, when the network announced that the rights to Amos ‘n’ Andy had been sold to the African countries of Kenya and Nigeria.  Kenya later banned the program.

Whether the show fostered a false characterization of Black people is debatable.  “I didn’t feel the show harmed the Negro at all,” said Alvin Childress (Amos) during interviews in the 1950s.  “Actually, the series had many episodes that showed the Negro with professions and businesses, like attorneys, store owners, and so on, which they never had on television or in movies before.”

Interestingly, decades later, Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) of Sanford and Son, J.J. (Jimmy Walker) of Good Times, George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) of The Jeffersons, and other characters on Black sitcoms would plot and scheme on their respective television shows just like Amos ‘n’ Andy had done in the early ‘50s.  However, the latter Black television sitcoms were never pressured off the air by civil rights groups.

Created by two White men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the television characters of Amos ‘n’ Andy were first heard as Sam ‘n’ Henry on Chicago radio station WGN in the mid-1920s.  It didn’t take long for complaints from civil rights groups to pour in, saying Gosden and Correll’s portrayals of African-Americans, inclusive of images and misuse of the English language, were offensive.

When Gosden and Correll opted to move the radio show to Chicago’s WMAQ, they were not allowed to take the Sam ‘n’ Henry characters with them.  The two men created Amos ‘n’ Andy and, amid constant protests, broadcasted nearly 5,000 radio episodes between 1928 and 1951, making it one of the longest-running radio programs in history.

In 2012, an independent TV network in Houston started airing previous episodes of Amos ‘n’ Andy, the first such airing in America in 50 years.  The network reportedly folded in 2018.  Nevertheless, without this “all-Black” television cast of talented actors and actresses making history in 1951, it’s unclear how many “all-Black” sitcoms would have been created and aired over the last 73 years on the medium called television.

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