Sunday, September 19, 1999

A memorable career

Retiring host Hasker Nelson looks back on 25 years of 'Black Memo'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Ella Fitzgerald interview. That was a great one, Hasker Nelson says.

Name: Hasker Nelson. Age: 62. Occupation: Public affairs director, WCPO-TV (Channel 9); producer-host of the public-affairs program Black Memo. He will retire Sept. 30. Home: Walnut Hills. Family: Divorced; one son, 38.
        Back in the '70s, the legendary jazz singer was in town to perform at the Beverly Hills Supper Club. She agreed to appear on Black Memo, the WCPO-TV (Channel 9) program created and hosted by Mr. Nelson.

        She reminisced about her childhood, about old friends, and how she got her start as a singer. Afterward, “She said it was the best interview she'd ever done,” Mr. Nelson says.

        Later that night he sat in the audience at the club. “From the stage, she called my name, and had them turn the spotlight on me. Ooooh. That was heady stuff for little Hasker Nelson.” @subhed:Since 1974 @rbody:

        In a sense, the spotlight has been on Mr. Nelson since Jan. 26, 1974, when the first Black Memo aired. “As far as we know, it currently is the oldest continuously running weekly black program in the country,” he says.

        Mr. Nelson, WCPO's public affairs director, guided the program for its first three years and for its last dozen. Now, after a career at Channel 9 that has included stints as manager of public service and minority affairs, news reporter, assistant production manager and Internet coordinator, he is retiring.

        His final original Black Memo will air a week from today. Reruns will carry the program through the end of the year. Beyond that, no decision has been made about programming, Channel 9 General Manager Bill Fee says.

        Mr. Nelson, a former executive with the Boy Scouts of America, had little broadcast experience when he arrived at Channel 9 a quarter century ago.

        His hiring was a result of “a conscious effort by the black community leadership to form coalitions to approach broadcast stations (and urge them) to increase minority participation both in staff and programming,” he says.

        “For me it was an opportunity to do something new, and participate in an adventure.”

        A few months into the job, his boss asked him to produce and host a weekly program. Its goals weren't all that clear at first, Mr. Nelson notes.

        “In my mind there was no shortage of (programs in which) black people entertain — laugh, dance, sing. I knew I wanted (the program) to be about getting information out.” @subhed:Donated programs @rbody:He stuck with that philosophy, selecting guests with information to share rather than those who wanted to spout opinion.

        Earlier this year, Mr. Nelson donated 74 Black Memo programs to the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio. They include tapes of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth discussing his civil rights activities; federal appeals court judge Nathaniel Jones recounting his experiences as an official observer during South African elections; and Phil Dixon talking about his pictorial book on the Negro Baseball leagues.

        Alex Haley, author of Roots, appeared on the program in 1976. The book and the interview changed Mr. Nelson's life.

        “Like millions of other Americans, I became more and more interested in family history,” he says. “He talked about going to the National Archives and looking up census information. I had never heard of the National Archives.

        “I'd heard my mother talk (about the family's ancestors). But I never thought in terms of connecting it and what that could mean.

        “I started gathering little tidbits. I talked to my mother. I wish I had been more into it before my father passed, because I didn't think to talk to him about it.”

        Mr. Nelson has now traced his family tree back to hisgreat-great-grandparents, Nathan and Agnes Barksdale. Nathan was born in Virginia in 1800.

        “I am proudly the great-grandson and great-great-grandson of enslaved people, on both sides of my family,” he says. @subhed:Passion for history @rbody:Various Black Memo guests have stimulated Mr. Nelson's interest in black history, particularly the slavery period. He, in turn, wants others to know more about their ancestors; he wants to humanize them, he says.

        To that end, Mr. Nelson says he is creating a community-based curriculum titled “Reclaiming the Spirits of Our Enslaved Ancestors.” He has also started a publishing/presentation company called Heritage Research Creations. He plans to offer workshops and programs on African-American genealogy.

        “It takes a lot of time, and it's got to be a passion,” he says. “I'm only going to deal with people who have a passion for it.”

        One gets the feeling Mr. Nelson will not be slowing down much in retirement.

        “My life,” he says, “has been about learning as I go.”        

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