Morris H. Blum, an Annapolis radio station owner hailed as a pioneer in race relations for putting African-American personalities on the air more than five decades ago, died of cancer Sunday at his Annapolis home. He was 95.
Born in York, Pa., Mr. Blum lived on Baltimore's Ulman Avenue as a child.
Self-educated, he joined the merchant marine in 1931 as a radio operator aboard a tanker and later worked in radio intelligence for the Federal Communications Commission.
"The guy could listen to Morse code and translate 35 words a minute," said Fred Koester, a former sales manager for the station that Mr. Blum founded, WANN-AM.
During World War II, Mr. Blum was a lieutenant commander aboard a Navy transport ship and observed African-Americans serving alongside whites.
"If I can serve next to black soldiers in World War II, and we can help each other survive through that," he could readily "understand the brothership between us," Mr. Blum told The Sun in 1997 for an article marking the 50th anniversary of the station's founding.
WANN (1190) initially broadcast big-band music, sports and news programs.
"I didn't particularly care for what we were playing," Mr. Blum said in the interview. "It just wasn't exciting." But within a year, he said, he discovered an untapped market in the black community.
He hired what he described as a "a young finger-snapper" from St. John's College, created the Savoy Swing Time program and played what then was called "race music" - gospel, soul or rhythm and blues - at a time when few stations were playing African-American music.
"He was completely colorblind at a time when it was not popular to support civil rights causes," said Richard L. Hillman, a longtime friend.
WANN began to build popularity in the black community. In 1949, he hired Charles Walker "Hoppy" Adams Jr., who would become the station's first executive vice president.
His station held a weekend "Bandstand on the Beach" at Carr's Beach, a segregated beach for African-Americans in Anne Arundel County, where such notables as Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown performed.
"He wanted to operate the station for other issues than just maximizing profits," said John R. Hammond, Anne Arundel County budget officer and former Annapolis city councilman. "He was about as humane a person as you could find."
The station's following expanded to Baltimore, Washington and the Eastern Shore.
"He spent the better part of his life fighting against bigotry," Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights activist and aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens, said yesterday. "You could walk blocks in Annapolis and hear WANN being played on transistor radios or as people washed their cars.
"He averted a catastrophe in Annapolis at the time of Dr. [Martin Luther] King's death," Mr. Snowden said. "He opened the station and allowed the African-American community to come on the radio and voice its concern. There were uplifting comments that allayed fear here."
The station's format was changed to country music in 1992, and Mr. Blum sold it in 1998.
"He was a practicing Republican of the moderate to liberal variety, much in the Lincolnesque or Mathias variety," said Robert R. Neall, a former Anne Arundel County executive and state senator. "He was just a kind gentleman."
Mr. Blum was honored in 1989 through creation of the annual Morris H. Blum Humanitarian Award, for accomplishments in civil rights or human rights, presented at the Dr. Martin Luther King Awards Dinner in Annapolis.
"He opened doors at a time when few doors were open," Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said yesterday.
Services were held yesterday at Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis.
Survivors include two sons, Jeffrey Blum and Dr. Larry Blum, both of Annapolis. His wife, Margery Blum, died in 1998.