The Black Press in the 19th Century (Essay)

>> Thursday, January 27, 2011

An essay on the origins of the Black Press that I'm continuing to develop. The essay focuses on the beginnings of the Black Press from its inception in 1827 in New York, its successors, and its role before emancipation, during slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the North, South and emerging Western states of North America.

This is dedicated to my sista scholar Shontrice Williamson, aka Trice the Beast.

Early Development of the Black Press: 1827-1898

By Reginald James
Written 2010

Since Black people were stolen from the African continent, enslaved, and legally designated as property, white people have defined the Black experience. Since their inception, white-owned newspapers featured Black people as objects, not subjects. “We didn’t exist it the other papers,” said Vernon Jarrett in the documentary The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. “We were neither born, we didn’t get married, we didn’t die...we were truly invisible, unless we committed a crime.” (Jarrett)

Amidst this backdrop, and efforts to thwart the rights of northern Blacks, the Black Press rose in resistance. The first Black newspaper emerged in New York City in 1827, although, Blacks, both free and enslaved, had been published since the colonial days. The Freedom’s Journal advocated liberation of Black people with editorials denouncing slavery, and telling the stories of prominent people that the white press would ignore. It also published birth notices, death notices and marriages. (Pride and Wilson, 9-14)

Since its inception, the Black Press has been the greatest tool of the African American community in combating racism, promoting self-development, and community building and empowerment. Without the Black Press, African people would not have a voice and would be forced to accept the definitions created by others.

Although there were newspapers published by abolitionists, Black people believed they were their own greatest advocates. (Jarrett) “We wish to plead our own cause,” wrote Freedom’s Journal editors John Brown Russworm and Rev. Samuel Cornish. Although published only a year, Freedom’s Journal not only impacted the world through its reporting of national and international news, but also its employment of agents who sold the paper in numerous states. In fact, one of its agents (salespersons) was David Walker, who published a pamphlet in 1829 calling for enslaved Africans in the south to violently revolt. Two years later, a literate preacher named Nat Turner led a famed uprising.

The debate over colonization (sending Blacks to Liberia, versus emancipation, freedom in America) between the newspapers editors led Freedom’s Journal to cease publication; however, they both continued publishing papers. Russworm published the the Liberia Herald in Monrovia, Liberia while Cornish published Rights for All until a month after Walker’s Appeal.

It was not until 1837 that another Black newspaper would be published that would adequately speak to the needs of Black people with a range equivalent to Freedom’s Journal. (Pride and Wilson, 25) Published by Cornish and Phillip A. Bell in New York, The Colored American sought the “moral, social and political” elevation of the free colored people; and the peaceful emancipation of the enslaved.” (Penn, 38) The newspaper became the first Black publication to be published for a considerable length of time. Filling the void that white abolitionists sought to fill after Freedom’s Journal.

In 1846, a state law was proposed to extend suffrage rights of African American men in New York. The New York Sun, a politically conservative daily newspaper published from 1833-1850 under the motto, “The Sun Shines for All,” ran editorials in opposition to such a state constitutional amendment. A man named Willis A. Hodges wrote a reply that was only published when he agreed to pay a sum of fifteen dollars. “Its sentiments were modified” and published as an advertisement. When Hodges protested the changes made, Hodge was told, “The Sun shines for all white men, and not for colored men.” If he wanted to plead his cause, he would have to publish his own paper. After consulting with other leading figures in the Black community of his day, in January 1847, Hodge published the first issue of The Ram’s Horn. The motto: “We are men, and therefore interested in whatever concerns men.” (Penn, 62-63)

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass published one of the most well known early Black newspapers. The North Star, named in recognition of the celestial symbol of freedom for southern Blacks who wished to escape to freedom, like Douglass did, agitated for emancipation. Douglass used the pages of the North Star, later renamed the Frederick Douglass Paper, to blast Europeans for their hypocrisy of enslaving Africans while touting their free society. (Penn, 67-70)

Most early Black newspapers were published in the U.S. In 1851, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Henry Bibb published The Voice of the Fugitive from Canada. Two years later, a woman named Mary Ann Shadd published the first newspaper edited by a Black woman with The Provincial Freeman. Shadd had been an agent for William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and a dispute with Bibbs over integration, which he opposed, led Shadd to publish her own newspaper.

The first Black newspaper published in California was in San Francisco and reveals the difficulties faced by Blacks in a racist, yet “free state.” Published in 1857, the publication appealed to “colored” residents of California. Its editor, Mifflin Gibbs, was an abolitionist who had toured with Douglass years before coming west during the Gold Rush. The Mirror adamantly opposed California’s restrictive “Black Laws.” The newspaper was responsible for the greatly attended “California Colored Convention of 1858. Gibbs ceased editing the publication, turning over responsibility to Jonas Holland Townsend. Gibbs and hundreds of other Blacks, fled the discrimination to British Columbia, known as the Black Exodus of 1858. Four years later, the publication merged with the Pacific Appeal under the editorship of Phillip A. Bell, who had moved west. (Pride and Wilson, 65-72)

It was illegal for enslaved Africans to read during slavery. Thus, the Black Press did not flourish in the south until after emancipation. Also, literacy rates in were low for enslaved and free blacks alike. The New Orleans Tribune began publishing during the Civil War in 1862. A bilingual newspaper for both French and English readers, it ceased publication when, in 1864, it became a tri-weekly publication and later the first Black daily, named L’Union, or La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orleans (Pride and Wilson, B8; Wilson).

It was previously believed that the first Black newspaper published in the south was the Colored American in 1865. Its prospectus read, “It will be devoted to the promotion of harmony and good-will between the whites and the colored people of the South, and untiring in its advocacy of Industry and Education among all classes; but particularly the class most in need of our agency.” (Penn, 100-102) In 1874, Blanch K. Bruce, the first Black U.S. Senator, founded the Star in Floreyville, Mississippi. It helped propel Bruce and Hiram Revels to office. (Pride and Wilson, 92)

The most noted man in journalism post-reconstruction was Timothy Thomas Fortune, known as T. Thomas Fortune. He edited three newspapers in New York, beginning in 1880 with the Globe, the Freeman, and the Age. After editing the Freeman, he went on to be a member of the editorial staff of the white daily, The New York Evening Sun. He fiercely opposed corruption among both Democrats and Republicans, rare as most Black newspaper men were connected to the Republican Party, and he was the first person to ever suggest a National Negro League. His publication was one of few to have a Women’s Department in the 1880s. A southern born man, he was a proponent Booker T. Washington’s philosophy, later helped further propel one of the greatest Black women journalists national prominence; Ida B. Wells. (Penn, 133-138)

Wells, a teacher by trade, began her journalism career writing for a Black church weekly named The Living Way. The publication was one of many papers published by Black churches, widely seen as the most dominant institutions in Black life from their inception to present day. After become editor and co-owner of the Free Speech newspaper of Memphis, Wells single-handedly launched the largest campaign against lynching ever. After the lynching of her good friend, Wells debunked the myth perpetrated by the white press that lynch law was justified in response to the “rape of white women.” Wells found that it was white men’s own racist, sexist and economic insecurities that led to lynching. Her agitation led to her own exile from the South. At The Age, She tabulated lynching statistics and crusaded internationalized the struggle, becoming the first Black woman paid for her overseas correspondence. (Pride and Wilson, 94; Penn, 407-410; Wells)

In 1891, I. Garland Penn, 24, published the comprehensive, “Afro-American Press.” The book documented the history of the Black Press through a combination of interviews, correspondence and primary research using remaining and known copies of early Black newspapers. Penn himself formerly edited the Lynchburg Laborer and was a school principal. (Penn)

Black newspapers originated out of the struggle of New York Blacks to establish their citizenship and fight for the freedom of their Southern kin. Through mid-western migration and Southern emancipation, Black newspapers spoke to the lives of the sojourner and migrant alike. Before the turn of the century, numerous Black newspapers dotted the landscape of the new American West; Seattle’s Republican ran 21 years from 1894, Portland’s The New Age and even the scarcely black populated Montana had the Colored Citizen in 1894. (Pride and Wilson, 108-110)

Perhaps ironically, the Black Press may have learned from the partisanship and subjectivity of colonial papers that agitated for American colonial rights from the British. Objectivity, although a central principle, is one of the biggest myths in journalism. The Black Press admittedly has never been objective. The object for first 70 years of the Black Press was to lead a formerly bound people on the path towards freedom, justice and equality.

With newspapers named The Anglo-African, the Afro-American, the Colored American, the Elevator, the Indianapolis Freeman and the Pacific Appeal, even the names of early Black newspapers show the struggle of Black people in both finding a place and defining the race. The trajectory of a dual battle has continued to this day. The Black Press’ two-fold duty has been to fight racism and promote self-help.

Most importantly, the Black Press allowed Black people to speak for themselves. “No longer shall others speak for us,” read the first editorial of The Freedom’s Journal. If Black people do not raise their voices with conviction, and speak out for truth and righteousness, someone else will. Or, as has happened in the past, no one will. Regardless, Black people should still use the Black Press to “educate the masses” in the cause of liberation and self-determination.

Works Cited

Penn, Irvine Garland. “The Afro-American press and its editors.” Willey & Co Publishers. 1891. Arno Press and the New York Times. New York. 1969.

Pride, Armistead S. and Clint C. Willson II. “History of the Black Press.” Howard University Press. Washington, D.C. 1997

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. Dir. Nelson, Stanley. California Newsreel, PBS. 1997.

Vernon Jarrett. Interviewee. The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. Dir. Nelson, Stanley. California Newsreel, PBS. 1997.

Wells, Ida B., edited by Alfreda Duster. “Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.” University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1970.

Freedom’s Journal, March 16, 1827

Wilson, Clint II. “First Black Daily Newspaper Founded” Black Press USA. Jan. 2002. Date Accessed 12 Dec 2010 



S.Ma'at January 27, 2011 at 2:32 PM  

Thanks for the dedicated! This piece was and is needed. Not enough people know about the history of African American publications. Going forward in my Black Journalism class I'll keep you in mind and make you and Pen Proud!


Unknown June 17, 2018 at 5:05 AM  

Really verbose post. I keen on about it. If you know any essay writer like
Please inform me , who able to help me for writing something. Tell his contact no.
Thank for everything.

Ciana Langham July 27, 2018 at 6:23 AM  

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I think the information that you gave is helpful. I adore reading posts on the website like this one. I think many people will find your blog interesting and useful.

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Insight into my daily regimen. Obviously of a different specimen. Me, myself & I. So fly. Welcome to the Daily Regiment.

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