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Thursday January 23rd, 2020 2:22AM

Black History Month: The showmanship of DJ, community leader Wes Merritt

By Alyson Shields Reporter

The year is 1950-something, and you have just finished your homework when you hear Pops finally click the radio to WDUN, then holler for you and your sister. Mama leaves the last few supper dishes in the sink, drying her hands as she goes. It's 7 p.m. on the dot, and your whole family meets in the living room to hear Wes Merritt, the first African American disc jockey in Gainesville, describe what’s going on around town from the Clearview Café. He teases the latest news and weather, then introduces a musical selection. Today, it's a dance number, and soon your whole family is on its feet.

While “Athens Street on Review,” later called “The Wes Merritt Show,” was broadcast from that little cafe on Athens Street, the volume knobs on radios all over Gainesville were turned up to hear music, including that of local churches, and the happenings in town during the hour-long program each weekday during the mid- and late-1950s.

Multi-Emmy award-winning television producer/director Rojene Bailey remembers visiting the Clearview Café on school nights and seeing Wes Merritt in action.

 “He covered news in the neighborhood, you know, church news, sports, talking about Fair Street High School Tigers when it was basketball season or football season. He was the voice of the football team. So he just covered a little bit of everything, anything that was going on in the neighborhood, good, bad, or otherwise, he would cover it,” recalled Bailey. “I remember listening to my mom and all them saying, ‘Well, we’ll listen to Wes Merritt and see if he knows anything about it.’ So you know they were gonna turn the radio on and if something was going on, you listened to Wes Merritt and he would talk about it. Unfortunately they didn’t have call-ins, I don’t think they had the call-in radio shows then, it was just him doing his thing.”

J. Wesley Merritt, Sr. was more than just the man behind the microphone. Several historical sources, including promotional material from the WDUN archive, say Merritt was the first African American disc jockey and show host in Gainesville, and possibly all of Northeast Georgia.

“Understand, that was in the late 50’s, early 60’s... that was the impossible dream, being on the radio during that time. It was just very interesting and very intriguing to see what they were doing and how they were doing it,” said Bailey, who also hosts a radio show, BluesTime in the City. “And now, don’t get me wrong, that did not get me interested in doing radio. That came years later, but I will never forget just him doing that with the class and the style that he did it with, and listening to his program, even when we were not there, that this very, very classy… to understand that somebody in the ‘hood was doing a show of that magnitude. [It’s] small time now, but when you’re a kid you look at it and it’s huge, it’s just really huge. And the man was just very, very friendly, very nice, just great to everybody. Very, very interesting man.”

Bailey said the show featured different church groups singing on the show, possibly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. “We would go there and I was just intrigued by what he was doing, you know, talking in the microphone, doing all that stuff, and he used to read commercials, or whatever he had in that little black book. I used to look over his shoulder and peep. And I said, 'man I gotta learn how to read better!’”

Bailey confirmed that the church groups, local news and sports were accompanied by some live bands. “I don’t recall any of them but I do remember listening to them sometimes. And back then you didn’t have but one mic, and the band sounded awful as compared to today, but you know during that time… and the thing is I don’t even know if WDUN would have any, I don’t even know if they recorded stuff back then. I figured you were just live and that was it.”

So far, WDUN hasn’t been able to locate any archived recordings from the Wes Merritt Show.

Merritt's voice was not just heard on the air, he also used it to serve his community. According to the book "Hall County, Georgia" by Linda Rucker Hutchens and Ella J. Wilmont Smith, Merritt was a member of the choir at St. John Baptist Church, pictured in a group photo in 1942. He could also be heard making a joyful noise at local sporting events.

"He was the radio announcer for Fair Street and Butler High Schools football games," said Jerry Castleberry, Gainesville City Schools Transportation Director. "He had a natural voice for radio and he made the games exciting, much like Larry Munson,” Castleberry said via email.

Merritt was also featured in a socio-educational film created by the Georgia and Hall County Departments of Public Health. "Palmour Street" was filmed in 1950 and premiered in 1951 for educational purposes, describing family life and behavioral impacts on children in rural, African American families in Gainesville.

In the film, Merritt played the father character, and his some of his real family members were featured alongside him.

Later, in 1976, Merritt played a supporting role in the trucker television series "Movin' On." Scenes from season two featured Gainesville and North Georgia, according to retired WDUN News Director Ken Stanford, and Merritt was one of several notable people featured in the show. Merritt appeared in season two, episode 16, in which he portrayed Old Luke, a farmhand who saves the life of one of the main characters, Will Chandler, after he was bitten by a snake in Chestnut Mountain.

But before the big microphone or the small screen, he was James Wesley Merritt.

He married Mildred Moss Merritt, around 1938. They had four children: daughter Shirley, and sons James W. Jr., Randall, and Vernon. His obituary also lists 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren as survivors.

Merritt also was involved in community affairs. He served as President of the Fair Street Elementary School Parent Teacher Association and as a member of the city school board. Gainesville City School officials were able to locate Merritt in the minutes as a board member for the first time in 1978.

Castleberry recalled that Merritt was influential beyond his popular radio program.

"Wes and several other men in the community during the time of segregation were important people. I am not sure if he was a member of the Southside Chamber of Commerce but he was certainly active. He was also a member (of) the Athletic Association and Men's Progressive Club that was revived about 18 years ago, [of] which I am a member, that meet weekly for breakfast at Longstreet," Castleberry said.

Merritt remained a pillar of the community for decades, and on February 23, 1992, then-mayor of Gainesville Emily Lawson declared it J. Wesley Merritt Sr. Day.                                    

During research for this story, Merritt’s name was recalled with fondness, and he was described as friendly, kind and well-liked. Bailey remembered Merritt taking time to interact with him when he was a child.

“You know, you could walk up to him, you could talk to him, you could ask him questions. Even when he was busy, you walk up to him and ‘what is that you’re reading’ and ‘oh, this is a commercial, we’ve got to have this on the air’ you know, and he’d just tell you all about it. He was just a very interesting man.”

Though the radio legend passed away in 1999, his memory lives on through his family, friends, the community, and in print: from the microfilms at the Hall County Library, to the "Hall County, Georgia" photographic history book, to "The Longer You Live" memoir written by the late John Wesley Jacobs, Jr.

Jacobs, Jr. not only founded the radio station where Merritt's show was heard, but he also worked closely with Merritt, recalling their mutually positive impact on each other in the memoir.

"With our continuing attempts to serve all of Gainesville, I was particularly proud of our association with the black community, especially our seven o'clock nightly program - 'Athens Street on Review.' J. Wesley Merritt emceed the show. Wes was an outstanding person, and we became great friends. Years later, I was honored to see that WDUN was mentioned in his obituary."

Whether he was hosting a radio show that got Gainesville listening or leading his friends and neighbors in community endeavors, J. Wesley Merritt’s voice made more than just an impact on the airwaves, his voice made a difference in the Gainesville community.

Special thanks to Rojene Bailey, Ken Stanford, Dr. Steven Shields, Jay Andrews, and The Jacobs Family for their help in the research of this feature; and to Bill Wilson for his help with the audio production.

 

RESOURCES

  • "Black America Series: Hall County, Georgia" - available for purchase at the Hall County Library
  • "The Longer You Live: Remembrances of John Wesley Jacobs Jr." - available for purchase at the Northeast Georgia History Center
  • The Beulah Rucker Museum and its list of African American Achievers, as well as a public service announcement from the museum
  • Hall County Library Microfilms - Gainesville Times, December 12, 1999 issue
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