J.D. Lewis was an on-air personality and corporate executive who broke racial barriers and gained widespread popularity during a long career at Capitol Broadcasting Company.
Lewis was best known as the genial host of “Teenage Frolics,” a dance and variety program that debuted on WRAL-TV in 1958 and ran for more than two decades. Teenage Frolics is thought to be the country’s first regularly-scheduled program hosted by an African-American; it went on the air thirteen years before the legendary Don Cornelius hosted the first “Soul Train” dance program in Chicago.
John Davis (J.D.) Lewis, Jr. was born in Indianapolis on July 7, 1919. His family moved to Raleigh in 1923 so his father could take a job as district manager with North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. J.D. grew up on South Bloodworth Street near Shaw University. He starred in football and track before graduating from Washington High School – the first public high school for African-Americans in Raleigh.
Lewis won a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he earned a business degree and graduated with honors. He lettered in football and track and at one time held the Southern Intercollegiate pole-vaulting record.
After college, Lewis returned to Raleigh, where he worked briefly for his father and then as a clerk in a neighborhood store. It was there that he met and fell in love with Louise Cox, a high school student who would become his wife.
When the United States entered World War II, most of Lewis’ college classmates urged him to join the Army’s 99th Pursuit Squad, better known as the “Tuskegee Airmen.” But Lewis was newly-married and wanted to stay near his bride, so he enlisted in the Marine Corps and thus became one of the first 200 blacks to serve in that branch of the military.
J.D. and his fellow black enlistees did basic training in North Carolina and were known as “Montford Point Marines,” a reference to the swampy area where their barracks were built to segregate them from white Marines at nearby Camp LeJeune. Lewis excelled at Montford Point and was sent to the Pacific Fleet School at Pearl Harbor for training on the military’s new radar technology. His unit was then assigned to the Marshal Islands to track Japanese movement during the rest of the war.
The radar and electronics experience gained in the Marine Corps laid the groundwork for the next step of J.D.’s career. When he returned to Raleigh in 1947, Lewis set up a radio and television repair business. He also built a mobile sound truck and drove around neighborhoods promoting various events and functions over the loudspeaker. And he handled public address announcements and play-by-play descriptions when teams from the old Negro Baseball League would play in Raleigh.
J.D.’s reputation grew quickly and in 1948 WRAL-AM/FM General Manager Fred Fletcher heard about him. Fletcher attended a baseball game at Chavis Park and was impressed with Lewis’ announcing talent. He quickly hired J.D. as a morning disc jockey, making him the first African-American radio announcer in North Carolina.
For the next twenty years Lewis blazed a trail in radio at WRAL-AM and FM, hosting music shows, doing interviews with community leaders and reading news and community announcements. He also got heavily involved in community service – joining and supporting the NAACP, Omega Psi Phi fraternity, The Urban League, The Boy Scouts of America and the First Baptist Church of Raleigh.
When Capitol Broadcasting Company competed for a television station license in the early 50s, the company proudly pointed to J.D.’s many on-air and civic contributions in its application. CBC won the license and WRAL-TV went on the air in late 1956. Two years later – in 1958 – J.D. Lewis would begin hosting the program that is still synonymous with his name – Teenage Frolics.
“Frolics” was a wildly popular program that aired live from the WRAL-TV studios every Saturday afternoon. The show featured African-American teenagers dancing to the latest tunes, and while it was best known for music and dance, Teenage Frolics also gave J.D. Lewis a platform for interviews with community leaders, civic officials and nationally-known entertainers such as Lou Rawls and Isaac Hayes.
Teenage Frolics provided a window into black youth culture and music and gave African-American teenagers a sense of pride. It also made J.D. Lewis a regional star, and his daughter, Yvonne Lewis-Holley, says she felt her father’s influence on a regular basis: “This is what I hear from people when I see them on the street: He was the first black man that they could see on TV that wasn’t pushing a broom.”
When J.D. Lewis ended his radio career in 1968 he became a community relations representative for Pepsi and a project director for the U.S. Labor Department. He was also responsible for job training programs for the Neighborhood Youth Corps.
In 1974, CBC President Jim Goodmon convinced J.D. to come back to the company, hiring him as Capitol Broadcasting’s first Human Resources Director. J.D. accepted the challenge and soon went on the air as an editorialist for WRAL-TV, stressing education and other topics that were important to him.
Later Lewis would serve as CBC’s Minority Affairs Director. During that time he hosted the WRAL-TV public-affairs program “Harambee,” where he used the phrase “Let’s get it together” as a slogan. J.D. also headed up the consumer-advocacy program “Call for Action” that helped numerous citizens with their financial problems.
Lewis’ deep interest in young people was exemplified throughout his life and career. When he retired from CBC in 1997, he declined a traditional gift and asked that the money instead be directed to his favorite charity, the Garner Road YMCA, a center J.D. helped found after World War II. Capitol Broadcasting Company’s Fletcher Foundation provided $100,000 in seed money for a multi-purpose center that opened in 2005. The new wing at the Y was fittingly named in honor of Lewis.
J.D. received numerous honors for his participation in a broad range of civic and community activities. In April 2000, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) presented him with its Humanitarian of the Year Award. J.D. was also inducted into the Hall of Distinction at the African-American Cultural Complex. And he received the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association.
In February 2007 Lewis was honored with the very first Triangle Urban League Legend Award for his trailblazing career that changed the landscape of the broadcast industry. The next day — February 17, 2007 – J.D. Lewis died at the age of 87.
In 2010, J.D. received posthumous induction into the Raleigh Hall of Fame.