ATLANTA — Two blocks away from the famous King Center in downtown Atlanta is a small brick building that tourists typically overlook.
But in the 1950s, that little brick building reverberated with the messages of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
The building was home to the first black-owned radio station in the United States — WERD — and it was the medium that King used to broadcast his Sunday sermons then, later, announcements of his civil rights marches. The station was a fixture of Atlanta’s African-American community. It offered a rare public venue for black jazz and blues performers during the Jim Crow era, and amplified the voices of King and other African-American leaders as they encouraged black citizens to vote.
In the decades that followed the tumultuous 1950s and ’60, the building that had been WERD went through the incarnations of any professional building in a changing city, finally serving its community as a hair salon during the 1980s and ’90s. That — a hair salon — was what hairdresser Ricci de Forest thought he was getting when he signed a lease in 2004.
What he knew, though, was that it was not just any hair salon; it was one of only two “Madam C.J. Walker” hair salons left in the country. Named for an African-American beauty pioneer who made a fortune from licensing her salon chain and selling beauty products in the early 20th century, the salon and the building housing it had the appeal of that historical niche.
“I wanted to attach her legacy to my business,” history buff de Forest said.
It wasn’t until about two years later that he discovered his new salon had a much broader and deeper place in African-American history, as the birthplace of WERD and as the amplifier of King’s words to a community and to a nation.
The discovery was met with a sense of jubilation mixed with disappointment. De Forest didn’t understand why the space hadn’t been preserved in the years before he came to Atlanta from Cleveland.
“The burden of the responsibility hit me like a sucker punch. This is a heavy responsibility,” he said.
In 1949, Atlanta University Professor Jesse B. Blayton Sr. bought WERD for $50,000. Although it was only allowed to operate from sunrise to sunset and was allocated limited frequency power, it quickly became a staple to Atlanta’s black community.
King’s office at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is on the other side of the wall. It was said that King would tap the ceiling of his office with a broomstick to get the attention of the WERD DJ upstairs when he needed to make an announcement.
Today, you can still hear broadcasts from WERD online, where de Forest plays his record collection under the motto “All vintage. All vinyl. All the time” every Wednesday from 3 to 5 p.m.
De Forest wanted to preserve the legacy of both Madam C.J. Walker and WERD by gradually turning his salon into a makeshift museum. Thousands of donated vinyl records — including albums by Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Count Basie — decorate the walls, along with segregation-era signs de Forest has collected over the years. His desk displays a rusty “we serve colored carry out only” sign.
The hair salon portion of the building looks like an early 20th century time capsule and still operates as a functional hair salon. While some of de Forest’s regular customers get their hair done, visitors stop by to look at the old curling irons and hair straighteners on display. One visitor named Selena says she’s lived in Atlanta for 18 years but didn’t know about the legacy of this place.
“It’s embarrassing — I’ve never stopped but there’s so much history in this one little space that I never knew about.”
It’s not just this building that doesn’t get much foot traffic along Auburn Avenue. In fact, many of the historic buildings in this district are not frequented by many visitors.
A once bustling district built by black entrepreneurs in the early 20th century, Auburn Avenue later suffered from a lack of investment after the city integrated. The National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the area “endangered” twice.
De Forest says he sees his efforts to preserve the Madam C.J. Walker Museum and WERD radio station as part of a larger mission to preserve the district’s history and contributions to the civil rights movement.
He gained nonprofit status last fall and keeps a small donation jar at the entrance of the building. De Forest says he’s received a few donations over the years but also has to frequently dig into his own pockets to keep the doors opened.
“I’ve been keeping it open for years and it hasn’t been easy. … It hasn’t been a financial gain. It’s been a financial drain.”
Despite this, he says he loves going in to work, where he is part-time hairstylist, DJ and tour guide.
“It’s like a 5-year-old going to ride his tricycle. It’s unbelievable. I feel that good.”
Nowadays, de Forest frequently thinks about retiring and moving abroad to train other hairstylists, but also worries about what this would mean for the future of the museum. He invites young local artists to use the museum for performances as a way to reach out to younger generations, with the hope that they, too, can share his enthusiasm and love for the space.
His outreach seems to be working. There are a handful of young volunteers, including a bubbly 24-year-old named Chiane Matthews, who by chance stopped by the building last spring and had been returning almost every day since.
“I fell in love with this place and so I wanted to do something to help preserve it,” Matthews said.
She started volunteering as a social media director and show producer and eventually brought her best friend, 23-year-old Amani Hassan, on board. In the short time before our interview, they had both been able to persuade another one of their friends to volunteer as “brand manager” for the museum.
On Wednesday nights, young men and women fill the makeshift museum. Matthews and Hassan take turns announcing the performers of the night, which include two R&B singers and two local rappers accompanied by a small band. During the performances, de Forest quietly sits in the corner and listens as he plays black and white video of a jazz duo on the back wall projector.
“I want them to know this is where it started,” he says.