The Black press is a critical—but often ignored—aspect of Black history and culture. Along with churches, political and service organizations, cultural institutions, and schools and universities, the Black press has been central to community formation, protest and advocacy, education and literacy, and economic self-sufficiency. Black journalists played a dual role, serving as of purveyors of news and information and as agents of social change.
The story of the Black press is one of ever-present challenges—to secure financial resources and to fend off public and private efforts to silence or control them. Many of the most influential figures in Black American history and thought including scholars, activists, entrepreneurs, religious leaders, novelists, and poets circulated through the Black press as editors, publishers, artists, and correspondents.
For the purposes of this essay, the Black press is defined as daily and weekly newspapers and magazines published by and for Black Americans.
EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY
In the early 19th century, Blacks were vilified in the White press, which openly supported slavery and racial bias. A group of prominent Black men met in lower Manhattan, pooled money, and started Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper ever published in the United States. It was started to give Blacks an autonomous voice, since the media was one of the only outlets for public expression available to Blacks. John Russwurm, a mulatto, the college-educated son of a White Jamaican plantation owner and one of his servants, and Samuel Cornish, a Presbyterian minister who had been born free in Delaware, were the first editors of Freedom’s Journal.
Russwurm and Cornish placed great value on the need for reading and writing as keys to empowerment for the Black population and they hoped a Black newspaper would encourage literacy and intellectual development among Black Americans.
The newspaper debuted on March 16, 1827 with the intention to prove that “Blacks are neither so ignorant nor stupid as they have generally supposed to be.” The paper’s goal was to counter racist commentary that was published in the White press. The weekly newspaper denounced slavery and advocated for Black people’s political rights, including the right to vote, and spoke out against lynchings. It provided readers with regional, national and international news and sought to improve conditions for the over 300,000 newly freed Black men and women living in the North. To encourage Black achievement, it featured biographies of renowned Black figures and printed school, job and housing listings.
In 1829, a dispute between Russwurm and Cornish led to the closing of the newspaper. But Freedom’s Journal paved the way to 24 other Black newspapers published before Civil War and made a significant contribution to the abolitionist movement by kick starting a dialogue about the evils of slavery.
By the beginning of the Civil War, three decades after the launch of this newspaper, there were over 40 Black-owned newspapers nationwide.
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One of the most recognized newspapers during abolitionist times was The Liberator written by William Lloyd Garrison. The Liberator began publication on January 1, 1831 and ran until December, 1865 (when the 13th Amendment was ratified and enslaved Black Americans were set free) without once missing a single issue (which totaled 1,820). In the first issue, Garrison wrote:
“I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation . . . I am in earnest. I will not equivocate-I will not excuse-I will not retreat a single inch-AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
This quote was representative of the typical abolitionist position. Garrison decided that the best way to spread his message would be to publish a newspaper. Black abolitionist newspaper publishers knew that what they were doing put them in danger, but they continued advocating. Garrison spent over thirty years putting his own safety in danger to convey his message. The Liberator grew to be a very well-known abolitionist publication.
PRE-CIVIL WAR AND CIVIL WAR PERIOD
The best-known Black papers during the pre-war and Civil War period were those associated with Frederick Douglasss, the Black abolitionist who escaped slavery and became one of the most famous orators, authors and journalists of the 19th century. On December 3, 1847, Douglas published the first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, in which he wrote:
“It has long been our anxious wish to see, in this slave-holding, slave-trading, and negro-hating land, a printing-press and paper, permanently established, under the complete control and direction of the immediate victims of slavery and oppression…that the man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress . . . .and that he who has endured the cruel pangs of Slavery is the man to advocate Liberty.”
Douglass’ newspapers stressed Black self-improvement and responsibility. One stated goal of the paper was “to promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people.”
In June, 1851, The North Star merged with the Liberty Party Paper under the title, Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Douglass remained editor and continued to advocate for social change and give a voice to Black Americans. Neither of his papers were self-supporting and because the literate population among Blacks was so small, its financial resources were slim.
More than 500 Black newspapers began publication between the end of the Civil War and the turn of century. Publishers borrowed printing presses from Black churches in cities across the country.
As slaves were forbidden to read before Civil War, Black newspapers after the Civil War were an introduction to the power and magic of the written word. Black newspapers pulled Black citizens into cohesive communities. Newspapers informed, elevated morale, and built a sense of racial consciousness. According to historian, Christopher Reed, “We can’t overstate the importance of these newspapers.”
In 1888 the Reverend Taylor Nightingale published the Memphis Free Speech. When J. L. Fleming, a newspaper man from Arkansas joined Nightingale, the name was changed to Free Speech and Headlight. Fleming had edited the Marion Headlight until a White mob “liberated” the county from Black rule and ran him out of town. Ida B. Wells, a local teacher and community activist, was invited to join the staff and she bought a one-third share of the newspaper.
The Free Speech and Headlight quickly became the most radical and talked about newspaper in Memphis. The paper’s attacks against White rule led the city authorities to have Nightingale arrested in 1891. He fled the city and left Wells and Fleming to express their views on racial issues. Using the columns of the Free Speech, Wells launched an anti-lynching campaign. She attacked the supposed reason for the lynchings of Black men—the rape of White women. She suggested that White women only claimed rape after their illicit affairs with Black men had been discovered and cautioned lynchers that their activities threatened to sully the reputation of the South’s women.
In March 1892, after the Curve Riot, in which Whites stormed the successful, Black-owned People’s Grocery Store, 75 masked White men stormed the Shelby County jail, forcibly seized three Black men, and lynched them. Emboldened by this injustice, Wells wrote passionately of the atrocity, attacking those who participated in, encouraged, or simply ignored the lynching. She was the first to realize that lynching had its base not only in the myth of Black men being sexually attracted to White women, but that it was an means of economically keeping Black folks down.
Wells advised her readers to “strike out for the West and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons." This sparked an emigration movement that eventually saw 6,000 Blacks leave Memphis for the western territories. On June 4, 1892, the offices of Wells’ newspaper were destroyed by an angry mob that also set out to kill Wells. Fortunately, she was out of town. Threats were made to lynch her if she returned to Memphis. Fearing for her life, Wells did not return to the South for another 30 years. Nevertheless, she became an inspiration to Black women.
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On May 1, 1893, the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) opened in Chicago to showcase American ingenuity to the world. But its exclusion of Black achievements prompted Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass to issue a pamphlet: THE REASON WHY The Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.
In response to the pamphlet, Exposition organizers arranged a “Colored American Day” on August 25, 1893. Robert Abbott, a law student from Georgia heard Frederick Douglass speak that day.
“Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution. We intend that the American people shall learn the great lesson of the Brotherhood of man and Fatherhood of God from our presence among them.”
In 1905, Robert Abbott would go on to establish The Chicago Defender, one of the most successful Black newspapers.
In the early 19th century, Black newspapers provided a forum for Black Americans and gave voice to a people who were voiceless. With a pen as their weapon, Black journalists and publishers were soldiers without swords.
Next week I will examine the role that Black newspapers played during the twentieth century.
FOR FURTHER READING
Bullock, Penelope L. The Afro-American Periodical Press, 1838–1909. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Provides a comprehensive, richly detailed discussion of periodicals that paralleled their newspaper counterparts in the antebellum, Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras.
Detweiler, Frederick G. The Negro Press in the United States. College Park, MD: McGrath, 1968.
First published in 1922, this study examines the political and rhetorical strategies of Black newspapers from their founding to the aftermath of World War I, including the radical journals of Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. It includes community data and analysis of newspaper content. Detweiler saw protest as critical to the Black press agenda in the early 20th century.
Kerlin, Robert T. The Voice of the Negro. New York: Arno, 1968.
Written in 1919. Kerlin argued for the importance of recognizing the Black press as a vital part of the African American community’s economic and social framework. His analysis found numerous papers that advocated for Black self-defense and retaliation against the rise in racial violence and discrimination in that era.
Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press and Its Editors. New York: Arno, 1969.
This book is generally recognized as the first study of the Black press. Written in 1891, it highlights the struggles of early Black editors and publishers to establish and maintain a Black print culture.
Pride, Armistead S., and Clint C. Wilson Jr. A History of the Black Press. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1997.
A broad and somewhat superficial overview of key newspapers, editors, and journalists from the first Black newspaper through the 1990s; includes background on the National Newspaper Publishers Association and a discussion of threats to the Black press’s survival.
Washburn, Patrick S. The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006.
This recent study of the Black press is an accessibly written narrative history of selective newspapers from the founding of Freedom’s Journal in 1827 to the civil rights era. Washburn highlights the Black press’s response to key historical episodes, such as the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, and government surveillance and harassment between the world wars.
Wolseley, Roland E. The Black Press, U.S.A. 2d ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.
This study, initially conducted in the 1970s, was for many decades the primary text on the subject. Despite some errors in fact, its coverage of newspapers, magazines, and influential Black journalists makes this a useful—if not critical—resource.