'Bird of the Iron Feather': a look back at TV's first black soap opera--produced in Chicago

February 12, 2013

For a brief moment in 1970, Bird of the Iron Feather was one of the most-talked about programs on local television.

Produced by Chicago public television station WTTW, Bird was television's first black soap opera. But the program dodged the usual soap opera plot conventions and took an unflinching look at the harsh realities of ghetto life. Race. Poverty. School desegregation. Police brutality and corruption. Set in Chicago and coming on the heels of late 1960s racial unrest here and across the country, Bird was as topical as the evening news.

But the show was canceled after a few months. And episodes of Bird have been rarely seen and never aired since.

Until now, at least. Check out the video above. In a bit of insomnia last night, I ran across a link to the archives of television historian and author J. Fred MacDonald, professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Among the treasures there, MacDonald has a full episode of Bird of the Iron Feather that aired January 14, 1970.

Bird's opening credits featured a swinging and supremely funky theme song performed by Oscar Brown Jr. with Jimmy Ellis on sax. "...Bird that survived genocide," Brown sings, referencing the program's title--itself taken from an 1847 speech by Frederick Douglass in which the abolitionist said black people are "bird[s] for the hunter's gun, but a bird of iron feathers, unable to fly to freedom."

The acting is a little stiff, but the dialogue connects like a punch to jaw. When the first line in the above episode is "The niggers won't leave the classroom," you know this isn't an episode of General Hospital.

The show was created by Richard Durham, editor of Muhammad Speaks, the Nation of Islam's official newspaper under the leader Hon. Elijah Muhammad. Black writers and directors--including the late Okoro Harold Johnson--created the thrice-weekly show. Premiering in January 1970, Bird was among WTTW's highest-rated shows when it aired and was later broadcast on public television stations across the country. The show caught the attention of Time, the New York Times and other national publications.

Indeed, Bird was so hot, actor Burt Lancaster's production company wanted to make a movie based on the program, according to a 1970 Jet magazine story. The show won a local Emmy in June 1970.

But it was all short-lived. With just 21 episodes produced, Bird was canceled when its $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation ran out. Ford weighed re-funding the show, but didn't. Bird's cast and creators mounted an unsuccessful effort to save the program.

Here's a bit more of the show's history, courtesy of the WYCC television program The Professors. Guests include media professor Temple Hemphill, Okoro Harold Johnson, who died last year and Bird cast member Harold Lee Rush: