African American Newspapers in the 19th Century

“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.” [1]

Inaugural issue of Freedom's Journal (March 16, 1827)

Inaugural issue of Freedom’s Journal (March 16, 1827)

Free African American communities in the United States began to publish newspapers early in the nineteenth century to plead their own cause as asserted by Samuel E. Cornish and John Brown Russworm in the Freedom’s Journal’s inaugural issue on March 16, 1827. Cornish and Russworm wrote two programmatic statements for this issue, one an article entitled “To Our Patrons,” the other a prospectus:

Daily slandered, we think that there ought to be some channel of communication between us and the public through which a single voice may be heard, in defence of five hundred thousand free people of colour. [2]

Although the Journal is sometimes described as an abolitionist platform, it was first and foremost a vehicle for the “diffusion of knowledge” and the elevation of the free African American community into “respectability.” [3]  The blight of the brothers in “the iron fetters of bondage” is only mentioned in passing in the editors’ letter to their patrons. [4]

Edward Williams Clay. "How you find yourself dis hot weader Miss Chloe?" Life in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: S. Hart, [1830].

Edward Williams Clay. “How you find yourself dis hot weader Miss Chloe?” Life in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: S. Hart, [1830].

Faced on a daily basis with slander, discrimination, poverty and violence, abolition was not the foremost concern of the free African American communities in the North East. As their numbers grew, so did the attacks by their white neighbors and the press. “Uppity negroes,” a.k.a. free and educated African Americans, were popular targets in the press. William Summers and Edward W. Clay’s stereotypical depictions of free African Americans in a series of etchings entitled Life in Philadelphia portray them imitating white society while lacking taste, intelligence, and proper English grammar.

 

John B. RusswormPenn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, 24.

John B. Russworm
Penn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, 24.

Access to the press gave the free African American community a public voice which it had lacked before. Existing newspapers felt no obligation to represent the opinions of the free African American communities. In 1845, Willis A. Hodges, a free African American, had to pay the New York Sun fifteen dollars to print his opinion on the so-called “colored clause,” which barred many African Americans from voting. An employee of the Sun told him that “the Sun shines for all white men, and not for colored men,” when he protested. Willis was so outraged over his lack of publishing opportunities in New York City, that he took matters into his own hands and started a newspaper in 1847. The Ram’s Horn was one of many short lived African American newspaper published in New York. [5] While Hodges was tenacious and had the financial resources to get his opinions printed, writing letters to the editors or opinion pieces and submitting them to a white editor would have been fairly intimidating for most African Americans, especially when one considers that these very same editors wrote or accepted articles which slandered the African American communities.

Samuel E. CornishBlackPast.org

Samuel E. Cornish
BlackPast.org

While African American newspapers played an important role in their communities, most of them folded after a few years because of financial struggles. Russworm and Cornish, the two editors of the Journal, may have been overly optimistic in their estimate of “five hundred thousand free persons of colour, one half of whom might peruse, and the whole be benefited by the publication of the Journal.” [6] The census put the free African American population in the North East at three hundred thousand and Hutton estimated that only about ten percent of free African Americans were literate and likely to subscribe to the Journal. [7] The Journal had over thirty agents in the U.S., Canada, England and Haiti and at least eight hundred subscribers, but few advertisers. [8] The number of African American businesses that regularly advertised in the Journal was relatively small. David Ruggles, one of the subscribers of the Journal and later a well known journalist and editor in his own right, ran ads for his grocery store in the Journal, informing his customers that the sugar he sold was produced by free people and not by slaves.

Freedom's Journal (February 14, 1829, p. 363)

Freedom’s Journal (February 14, 1829, p. 363)

The fact that African American businesses located in Boston and in Philadelphia placed ads in the Journal, shows that the Journal’s readers over a wide geographical area as intended by Russworm and Cornish: “It is our earnest wish to make our Journal a medium of intercourse between our brethren in the different states of this great confederacy.” [9] The “Information Wanted” ads in the Christian Recorder are another indicator of the reach of these newspapers. Dispersed families from all over the country used the Philadelphia based newspaper after the end of the Civil War to search for lost family members as far away as Louisiana, confident that the Recorder would be distributed and read in the African American communities there as well.

 

Information Wanted adsThe Christian Recorder (January 3, 1889, p. [7])

Information Wanted ads
The Christian Recorder (January 3, 1889, p. [7])

In the end, the Journal ceased publication not because of lack of funds, but because Russworm emigrated to Libera. Russworm’s fervent support for the African colonization movement drove a wedge between him and his readers who mostly opposed plans to repatriate African Americans to Liberia, a plan which many whites supported. Cornish tried to salvage the Journal and its subscriber list with a new paper under the going by the title Rights of All, but only managed to keep it going for five month. In the coming years, African American-owned newspapers cropped up all over the North East, many of them short-lived, but all of them building stones for a new African American print culture.

Over forty African American newspapers were founded before the Civil War. [10] Among them the Colored American (1837-1841), the Christian Recorder (1852-1902), and the three papers published by Frederick Douglass, the North Star (1847-1851), the Frederick Douglass Paper (1851-1855), and the Douglass Monthly (1859-1863). Although they were all printed in the North East, they did circulate in the South as well. The Freedom’s Journal had agents in four southern states:Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Maryland. The Christian Recorder, as the official organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was distributed and read in many African American churches. Over a hundred new newspapers were published in the United States during the war and until the end of the era of reconstruction. [11]  The Christian Recorder is to this day published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

newspapers 1880

Locations of African American journals published in 1880
Penn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, p. 113.

Cited References

1
Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russworm, “To Our Patrons,” Freedom’s Journal 1, no. 1 (March 16, 1827), p. [1].
2
Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russworm, “Prospectus,” Freedom’s Journal 1, no. 1 (March 16, 1827), p. 4.
3
Ibid.
4
Cornish and Russworm, “To Our Patrons,” [1].
5
I. Garland Penn, The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (Springfield, Mass.: Willey & Co., 1891), 61-63.
6
Cornish and Russworm, “To Our Patrons,” [1].
7
Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827-1860 (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1993), xii.
8
Bella Gross, “Freedom’s Journal and the Rights of All,” The Journal of Negro History 17, no. 3 (1932), 249.
9
Cornish and Russworm, “To Our Patrons,” [1].
10
Charles E. Simmons, The African American Press (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1998), 13.
11
Ibid., 15.

Primary Sources

Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russworm. “Prospectus.” Freedom’s Journal 1, no. 1 (March 16, 1827): 4.
Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russworm. “To Our Patrons.” Freedom’s Journal 1, no. 1 (March 16, 1827): [1].
Summer, William. Life in Philadelphia, 1828.
Clay, Edward Williams. Life in Philadelphia, 1830.

Secondary Sources

Gross, Bella. “Freedom’s Journal and the Rights of All.” The Journal of Negro History 17, no. 3 (1932), 241-86.
Hutton, Frankie. The Early Black Press in America, 1827-1860. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press and Its Editors. Springfield, Mass.: Willey & Co., 1891.
Pride, Armistead S. A Register and History of Negro Newspapers in the United States: 1827-1950, Ph. D. Dissertation, Northwestern University, 1950.
Pride, Armistead S. and Clint C. Wilson II. A History of the Black Press. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.
Simmons, Charles E. The African American Press. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1998.

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