Throughout the 19th century, the Black press—those daily and weekly newspapers and magazines published by and for Black Americans—provided a forum and gave a voice to a people who were voiceless. With a pen as their weapon, Black journalists and publishers were soldiers without swords.
Black newspapers played an equally significant role in the lives of Black Americans throughout the twentieth century.
EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
As the Great Migration began to pull Black Americans away from the rural South in the era of Jim Crow, the numbers of Black newspapers and periodicals exploded along with the urban Black population. Between 1900 and 1910, more than 2,600 Black newspapers were published in the United States, more than ever before or since.
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THE CALIFORNIA EAGLE
John J. Neimore established The Owl in 1879 to recruit Blacks to Los Angeles, and provide them with housing and job opportunities and other information essential to surviving in a new environment. Charlotta Bass worked at the newspaper and learned all aspects of the business. When Neimore died in 1912, Bass became the publisher and editor—the first Black woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States. She renamed the newspaper The California Eagle.
Bass launched a militant campaign against discrimination and segregation. At every opportunity, she challenged Americans to uphold the inalienable rights espoused in the Constitution. In the paper, she spoke out against injustices in the military in both World Wars.
After World War I, The California Eagle fought racial discrimination and segregation in Los Angeles and California and specifically “restrictive covenants,” policies used to keep new housing tracts and developments racially segregated. The covenants restricted the use of land or housing to keep Blacks and other minorities from living or purchasing property in certain neighborhoods.
One of The Eagle’s biggest crusades was against the motion picture industry. In July 1914 Bass learned that The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, was going to be made into a movie. The movie, which has been called “the most reprehensibly racist film in Hollywood history,” celebrated Ku Klux Klan violence and portrayed the KKK as a heroic force necessary to preserve American values and maintain White supremacy. The mainstream press hailed the movie as a cinematic achievement.
Charlotta Bass denounced the film. She struggled to make the movie industry morally responsible for the content of its products. Despite the protests of Black Americans across the United States, and the banning of the movie in some communities, the film inspired the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan only a few months after the film’s release.
The Eagle condemned police brutality and waged successful battles against discriminatory hiring practices in numerous Los Angeles organizations. The paper co-sponsored the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign dissuading Blacks from patronizing businesses that had discriminatory hiring practices. By the 1930’s, the paper had a circulation of nearly 60,000.
In 1951, Charlotta Bass sold the paper to Loren Miller, an attorney and former Eagle reporter, and devoted her remaining years to politics. She founded the National Sojourner for Truth and Justice Club, which sought to improve working conditions for Black women. In 1952 she became the first Black woman to run for a national office as the Progressive Party’s Vice Presidential candidate.
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THE PITTSBURGH COURIER
The Pittsburgh Courier was established in 1907 by Edwin Harleston, a security guard and aspiring writer. After attorney Robert Lee Vann took over as the newspaper’s editor and publisher in 1910, the newspaper gained national prominence. By the 1930’s it was one of the country’s most widely circulated Black newspapers and the first national newspaper. It had a circulation of almost 200,000.
The Courier called for improvements in housing, health, and education, and protested the slum conditions Black people were forced to live in in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. In one campaign, the paper pressed for an increase in Black physicians and the opening of a Black hospital to serve Pittsburgh’s health needs since White hospitals were unwilling to treat Blacks.
The Courier sought to empower Blacks economically and politically by counseling Blacks on financial matters. The paper encouraged the Black community to support Black organizations such as The National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
As a publisher, Vann hired some of the greatest minds in the country. People who wrote in The Courier included columnist W.E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neal Hurston. At its height The Courier had 15 columnists, more than any other paper in the country. In 1940, when Vann died, the paper was the most powerful Black newspaper in the country. It represented power for Black people who never had any.
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THE CHICAGO DEFENDER
The seed of Robert Abbott’s perspective on journalism was planted at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 when he heard the words of Frederick Douglass. After graduating from Kent Law School in Chicago in 1899, he was told that he was “too dark” to practice law in America. Unable to support himself as a lawyer, he became convinced that he could defend his people in public print better than in a courtroom. Believing that the vehicle for change was newspapers, he took a job learning the trade.
In 1905, he borrowed 25 cents and set up his printing equipment in his landlady’s dining room with a folding card table and a kitchen chair as his office. On May 5, 1905, he established The Chicago Defender with an initial print run of 300 copies. He sold papers himself by going door to door to barbershops, pool halls, drugstores, and churches on the South Side of Chicago. By 1910 he had a going concern. By the advent of World War I, the newspaper was the country’s most influential Black weekly newspaper with more than two-thirds of its readership located outside Chicago.
The Defender’s editorial position was seen as militant, attacking racial inequities head-on. Bold sensational headlines, graphic images, and red ink were used to capture readers’ attention and convey the horrors of lynchings, rapes, assaults, and other atrocities affecting Black Americans. Instead of using the words “Negro” or “Black” in its pages, Abbott referred to Blacks as “the Race” and Black men and women as “Race men” and “Race women.”
White distributors in the South refused to circulate The Defender and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan tried to confiscate it and threatened its readers.
In order to get the newspaper into the South, Abbot went to railroad yards and enlisted Black Pullman train porters. The porters hid the newspapers in the trains and stepped out between the cars and threw them out of the train.
The Defender was passed from person to person, and read aloud in barbershops and churches, including the ads. It is estimated that at its height each paper sold was read by four to five Blacks, putting its readership at over 500,000 people each week. The Chicago Defender was the first Black newspaper to have a circulation over 100,000, the first to have a health column, and the first to have a full page of comic strips. Within a decade, it outsold every newspaper in the country.
Between 1882 and 1919, three thousand Blacks were lynched in this country. That was one every 4 ½ days. Abbott showed pictures in The Defender. Some of these pictures have been shown in my newsletter November 29, 2020.
Abbot made a mockery of the White press, ridiculing mainstream media. For example, mainstream papers would put the word “Negro” in parentheses after an individual’s name. Abbott followed suit by putting (White) after the names of individuals. In April 1917, he wrote that “Woodrow Wilson (White) declared war on Germany yesterday.”
When World War I started, Abbott began an aggressive and successful campaign in support of “The Great Migration” movement. He encouraged Blacks to come north and printed job listings and one way train schedules to Chicago. Abbott gave Southern Blacks a sense of hope and they responded with faith in him.
BETWEEN THE TWO WORLD WARS
The Defender’s campaign caused Southern readers to migrate to the North in record numbers. At least 110,000 Blacks came to Chicago alone from 1916-1918, nearly tripling the city’s Black population.
When the Great Migration began, Southern Whites didn’t believe Blacks would stay in the North because it was cold. When they realized people weren’t coming back, the economy suffered, and Whites tried to stop Blacks. Some places banned The Chicago Defender. In some places, colored newspapers could not be circulated. Nevertheless, in 1920, 1 million more Black people left the South.
Abbott sought to educate the masses of former slaves that arrived in northern cities by teaching social graces to his readers. For example, he wrote: “Do not use vile language in public spaces; do not live in unsanitary houses or sleep in rooms without proper ventilation; do not violate city ordinances,” among others. The following list of “Don’ts for Newcomers” appeared in The Chicago Defender on July 14, 1923.
In the “Red Summer” of 1919 tension erupted between Blacks and Whites in the north. The Chicago Defender kept track of how many were killed and listed their names daily. It campaigned for anti-lynching legislation and for integrated sports.
The Chicago Defender became the most powerful voice for Blacks. The paper helped to create new communities. And by the 1920’s, more than 1500 Black newspapers were in print in the U.S.
Between WWI and WWII Black newspapers showed the spectrum of Black life—where to shop, where to get jobs, which employers didn’t discriminate. The newspapers guided readers through the segregated world. They lauded Negro athletes that mainstream newspapers ignored. The early 1920’s marked the formative stages of a period of cultural flowering in the Black community known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Black newspapers were major employers. Newspaper men and women were treated with respect and adulation. They were stars in the Black world; they were seen as glamorous. Black newspapers were training grounds for artists, writers, photographers, typesetters, and authors and poets such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Because Black papers couldn’t get revenue-generating ads from large organizations, publishers had to scramble to boost circulation. But the lack of large advertisers gave them freedom to publish the truth without having to gear their editorial content to large corporations on which they had to depend for advertising dollars.
WORLD WAR II
When World War II began The Pittsburgh Courier immediately made a connection between the United States’ treatment of Black Americans and Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews. President Roosevelt wrote to Robert Vann requesting that the paper tone down its rhetoric concerning racial discrimination. The paper complied for a while. Until . . .
In January, 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and our country’s entry into World War II, 26-year-old James Thompson, a cafeteria worker from Wichita, Kansas wrote to The Courier that Blacks should use the war oversees to press for change at home. Like most Black war workers at the time, Thompson could not work on the factory floor of the aircraft manufacturing company where he was employed. He was confined to working in the factory cafeteria.
In his letter, Thompson wrote:
“The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny. If this V sign means that . . . then let we colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”
The Courier again used its voice to champion the rights of Black Americans. On January 31, 1942, Robert Vann printed the full text of Thompson’s letter on its front page.
The full text of James G. Thompson’s Letter to the Editor can be read here.
The Courier picked up Thompson’s theme and on February 7, 1942, published on its front page a “Double V” insignia announcing the “Democracy At Home – Abroad” slogan. The response was overwhelming. Black Americans from almost every background embraced the idea that, given their sacrifices in the military during World War II and six million more working in defense plants, they would not allow Jim Crow to go unchallenged during or after the war. Many historians see the Double V campaign as the opening for the civil rights movement and continued protests for racial justice.
It was unofficial military policy to place Black soldiers under the command of Southern White officers because, according to the Army, Southern Whites knew best how to “handle the negro.” Black newspapers saw it as their duty to report assaults of Black soldiers by their own countrymen. When racial violence erupted in the Army, the Black press reported it on front pages. The federal government tried to shut the newspapers down since the military was afraid of hurting national morale and becoming the ridicule of the world.
The military considered Black newspapers the enemy and made every effort to keep Black newspapers from the troops. Many in the military feared that Black soldiers would hinder the war effort; Black newspapers were burned. I find it ironic that books were being burned in Germany and Black newspapers were being burned in our country.
J. Edgar Hoover decided the Black press was dangerous to American’s well-being in the war. He accused the Black press, and especially the Double V program, of sedition and orchestrated hearings before select committees of Congress.
But Hoover had to go through Frances Biddle, the Attorney General. He asked Biddle to indict a group of Black publishers for treason in an effort to ban the Black press. Biddle threatened to take the publishers to court under the Espionage Act.
By 1940, Robert Abbott had died and John Sengstacke had become publisher of The Chicago Defender. Concerned by the growing threat of censorship, Sengstacke went to the Justice Department in mid-1942 and explained to the Attorney General the problems of discrimination and the need for Black newspapers to report the facts. Sengstacke left the Attorney General’s office with an extraordinary agreement. Biddle would not prosecute if the newspapers would agree not to escalate their campaign during the war.
Many Blacks and Whites felt the timing wasn’t right to ask to eliminate second class citizenship when the country was at war.
The combined circulation of Black newspapers was 2 million issues per week at the end of the war. One of the Double V campaign slogans read, “When you come home we want the world to be different.” The Black press became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
THE POST-WAR PERIOD
In the post-war period, Black newspapers were key actors in the quickening struggle for social change.
As demands for change intensified, some Black newspapers like Charlotta Bass’s California Eagle led the charge for immediate action. The newspaper took on the housing authority, the real estate association, and police brutality. She criticized the federal government. But the poisoned atmosphere of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s made her a target. Hoover trailed her for years. She was branded a trouble maker and Communist. Black readers began to turn away from The California Eagle. In 1951 she sold the newspaper after leading the paper for 40 years. The California Eagle, the oldest Black newspaper in the U.S., continued until 1964, when its presses shut down for the last time.
But most Black newspapers didn’t have the resources to cover the civil rights movement as thoroughly as they wanted to. Now the White media began reporting what was happening to Blacks and people could turn on their televisions and see dogs and fire hoses being unleashed on Black citizens. The civil rights movement made Black Americans more visible to the rest of the nation.
The civil unrest of the 1950's benefitted Black journalists. TV networks began hiring Black reporters for the first time. White newspapers and television networks wanted to report on in the civil rights movement so they hired Black reporters. And since more money was offered by White newspapers and television stations than the Black newspapers could pay, Black journalists and reporters moved into the mainstream media.
Large organizations now began to see Black newspapers as a way to reach Black consumers. Increased advertising dollars to Black newspapers decreased the papers’ reliance on circulation dollars. But those dollars came with a price. Often advertising had an effect on editorial policy. The Black press could not criticize White America the way it had previously. Corporations such as General Motors or large downtown department stores would not allow the newspapers to denounce White Americans on the front page and still pay for full-page ads within the newspaper.
Plus, Black Americans now had choices. They could buy The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune in ways they couldn’t 20 years earlier.
According to Dr. Reginald Owens, the Chair of Journalism at Louisiana Tech University, “The Black press is alive and well today simply because the mostly White press can't or won't cover the [Black] community like the Black media do. It never did. It never will. These statements may sound harsh, but my conclusion has less to do with my judgment of mainstream media and its intentions, and more to do with the nature of the Black press as an active, integral part of a still largely separate [Black] social structure.”
Today our society needs more inclusive news. Certain stories are simply not reported, or are told without the nuance or perspective the circumstances require. The Black press has filled that void for generations. And with the advent of digital platforms, a baton has been passed to Black millennial writers to continue presenting narratives, with underrepresented points of views, that would otherwise go missing—and do not necessarily reflect the White men who dominate the industry.
From its inception, the Black press has been a change agent by shining a light on the plight of Blacks and giving them the power to write and report on their own narratives.
The days of "reading the paper" are long gone for many. Over the years, many Black publications have disappeared. Others learned to navigate the new landscape, and a plethora of new Black media emerged with a strictly online presence, impacting the manner that Black people digest and make sense of the news.
When narratives are told from the perspective of a Black lens, there is a sense of responsibility to the community, advocating for that community and telling their stories from their perspective.
According to Frank Bolden, one of only two accredited Black American war correspondents during World War II, “The black press was the advocate of all our dreams, wishes, and desires. I still think it was the greatest advocate for equal and civil rights that Black people ever had in America. It had an effect on everybody.”
For a directory of all the weekly and daily Black newspapers and websites, click here.