America's first black-owned radio station let the words of MLK and others ring

Story highlights

  • WERD became the first African American-owned radio station in 1949
  • It broadcast information relevant to Atlanta's black community from sunup till sundown
  • Today, the space houses a museum dedicated to the station and hosts live performances weekly

Atlanta (CNN)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," says history buff de Forest.
    It wasn't until about two years later that he discovered his new salon had a much broader and deeper place i