The Commercial Appeal
Radio pioneer Willa Monroe became a star ‘homemaker’
First Black woman in US to host her own program radio show — as a radio homemaker.
Imagine, if you will, a Black Mae West in Memphis in the early 1950s: elegant, her curves corseted into tight dresses, a peach-shaped face, a cool voice. She lived in luxury, went to parties, had a maid. Unmarried, no children. She greeted visitors stretched out on a chaise, dripping with furs, wearing mules with kicky tassels.
This was Willa Monroe. And she was more than a socialite. She was the first Black woman in the U.S. to host her own
What was a ‘radio homemaker’?
In the first decades of radio, white “radio homemakers” were stars — the social media momfluencers of their day. They talked about their families and shared household tips and the latest home economics advice. At one point in the 1940s, 14 radio homemakers broadcast live daily from Shenandoah, Iowa, alone.
But white people owned the stations and controlled the airwaves. In 40% Black Memphis, it took almost going broke for the white owners of WDIA to switch to Black-oriented programming in 1948.
Monroe made her radio debut in an interview with the South’s first Black host, teacher Nat D. Williams. She dropped her script but gamely adlibbed on. The station hired her to create a show listeners had requested: “Tan Town Homemakers.”
Memphis’ Black women embraced her. Within five years, Monroe had at least 15 fan clubs. “She can cook, too!” The Commercial Appeal trumpeted.
Could she cook?
Nope. Or at least, she didn’t. Her maid, Doll, did everything.
“Willa knew nothing about homemaking!” said Carol Spindel, the daughter of WDIA program director Christine
What’s more, “She was a kept woman,” Nat Williams’ daughter Natolyn Herron told public radio interviewers in the 1990s.
Monroe’s boyfriend was one of the wealthiest Black men in Memphis. The relationship was an open secret, if a secret at all. Monroe attended the same society events as her boyfriend and his wife.
But WDIA didn’t want an ordinary homemaker, Spindel said. Apparently listeners felt the same way: 40% of the Memphis radio audience listened to her show, according to historian Laurie B. Green.
Other stations noticed, beginning Black-oriented programming and hiring their own homemakers. Their ranks included Louise Fletcher in Nashville, Alice Wyce in Atlanta, Robelia Polk in Birmingham and Delores Estelle, Laura Lane and Sister Bessie Griffith in New Orleans, according to historian William Barlow. Some went on to long careers in the medium, like Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, who started her career as a sub for Monroe before cementing her legacy in Detroit.
Monroe did not share Steinberg’s work ethic. “She was lazy!” Herron said, laughing. Lying on that chaise, the radio pioneer would have a bowl of candy on one side and finger sandwiches on the other. She’d call her maid — “Honey, bring me a Coke.”
Herron, a grade-schooler, thought Monroe was living the dream: “She was just so cool!”
What was the show like?
“Tan Town Homemakers” ran from 9 to 10 a.m. every weekday. Sadly, no recordings seem to remain. It was an hour of calm and sophistication — no matter that Monroe spilled in at the last minute with papers falling out of her big purse, Spindel said.
She played smooth pop by singers such as Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, read society news and other bits from the Black papers, did interviews and yes, shared recipes, former WDIA employee Louis Cantor wrote.
White radio homemakers portrayed themselves as rural jes’-folks, “visiting” on the air — even though they all were, or rapidly became, professional broadcasters and often entrepreneurs. In contrast, Black radio homemakers were aspirational. They lived in cities. They were the radio equivalent of Ebony magazine food writer Freda De Knight, whose cookbook included cocktail nibbles from Hollywood star Hattie Mcdaniel.
Photographed with Elvis at a WDIA benefit concert, Monroe wore a spangled, silky toreador outfit with cropped jacket, tails and cummerbund over a top with a plunging neckline, topped by a bedazzled Kewpie bonnet.
She plucked her recipes from magazines, and they were as impractical as her mules.
“Nobody in the Black community had any of this stuff Aunt Willa was saying to get. Because we didn’t buy, you know, horseradish,” Herron recalled. “People would call in and say, ‘What is it?’ or, ‘Where you get it from?’ and she didn’t know what it was. It didn’t matter.” It didn’t.
Monroe had a sweet face all right, but a steel spine. Sometimes Christine Spindel had to read her the riot act, because the sponsors didn’t like how she read their ads. Monroe would listen — then do her own thing. When the program director got home, “a cab driver would knock on her door and deliver these amazing dishes that Doll had made,” Carol Spindel said. It was an apology, or a bribe, and the two women would be reconciled.
Anyway, you couldn’t argue with success. Monroe hawked products so effectively that WDIA sold sponsorships in 15-minute sections, Cantor wrote. Not just to local Black businesses but to national companies like Proctor & Gamble.
How did Monroe’s career end?
Monroe retired due to a stroke in the early 1960s, the Tri-state Defender reported. By 1963 she was “well again, more chic than ever in appearance, and was seen Easter Sunday wearing a white orchid, the gift of the WDIA staff,” the newspaper wrote. WDIA held a full day of radio to honor her.
That said, Steinberg told the Tristate Defender in 1968 that her former colleague Monroe had been fired over the phone while on vacation.
From there, Monroe disappears from the record. She died in December 1974 at her sister’s house, according to a notice in the Press-scimitar. The notice did not list her age. Willa Monroe might not have known how to keep a home, but she knew how to live a life.
Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter and the author of the book “The Secret History of Home Economics.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919/2363141.