First of all, I must give all credit to architecture and cultural critic, teacher, TV host and photographer Lee Bey, who talked about the short-lived TV series, “Bird of the Iron Feather,” on NPR radio/WBEZ-FM Chicago earlier this week – a program that is considered one of the first, if not the first, black dramatic series ever on television.
And if you’ve never heard of it, that’s completely understandable. The show was a local production made by what is now Chicago’s local PBS station, WTTW (back when it was known as National Educational Television, long before it became PBS), some 47 years ago in 1970. And to say that it was a sensation is putting it mildly. The show was hot; the talk of the town, and eventually the entire country.
First of all, here was a regular TV series that dealt head-on with important issues from a black perspective, including racism, poverty, corruption and the antagonistic relationship between black people and the police; it was produced 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 what POV the show was coming from.
It featured a slew of local black talent, both in front of and behind the camera (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 country.
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, he 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 so 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 funding the show for more episodes, it decided not to.
The program has since been mainly forgotten, except for TV historians and Lee Bey; and most of its episodes have presumably been either lost or destroyed, except for one which has been 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.