Often unobserved in contemporary American culture, the Black Press is an institution in the history and momentum of Black culture, economics and politics. For over 175 years, Black newspapers have been the center of enterprise and information in America's Black communities. From slavery times to now, Black newspapers and their publishers have been the primary voices for, and about, African Americans.
One hundred and twenty-three years after America's first newspaper, Freedom's Journal became the first one for Blacks. It was published in 1827 by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm the same year slavery was abolished in New York State. Freedom's Journal was started as an alternative to white-controlled New York publications that presented African Americans in derogatory terms. America's first Black millionaire, Paul Cuffee, was an investor and influence toward the paper's abolitionist positions. Freedom's Journal masthead stated what 4,000 papers following it proclaim: "devoted to the improvement of the colored population." Freedom's Journal lasted until 1829, when Russwurm emigrated to Liberia, following Cuffee's and his first settlement of Black colonizers, to become governor of the Maryland Colony.
Freedom's Journal initiated a trend of papers that fought for Blacks' liberation and rights. It was followed by Frederick Douglass' North Star which he published in collaboration with William Lloyd Garrison. Throughout decades of chronicling African-American interests, the overall question for African American publishers was that of balance between race militancy and social accommodation.
Blacks' greatest leaders used newspapers to spearhead their movements by making the issues of African Americans visible. From Cornish, Russwurm and Douglass, Black publishers have been forerunners for justice and economic empowerment for their communities. Between 1881 and 1901 Booker T. Washington created a national network of newspapers and schools which resulted in the National Business League. In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey's Negro World newspaper was the vehicle upon which he built African Americans' greatest mass-movement for equal rights and building of capital assets. Elijah Muhammad built the Nation of Islam with Muhammad Speaks.
During the early and mid-20th century, the Chicago Defender was the most influential Black newspaper in America. Published in Chicago with a national editorial perspective, the Defender played a leading role in the migration of Blacks from the South to the industrialized North. Founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, the Defender used editorials attacking white oppression of Blacks to increase its circulation in southern states. By 1929 the Defender was selling more than 250,000 copies each week.
As African-Americans migrated from fields to urban centers, virtually every large city with a significant Black population soon had Black-oriented newspapers. Examples were Abbot's Defender, the Detroit Tribune, Pittsburgh Courier, and (New York) Amsterdam News. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Black newspapers were highly profitable and gave African-Americans the news through the lens of their own. These newspapers were a source of pride for African-Americans and focal point of cohesion for them to fight oppression.
Largely ignored in American society and culture, the Black press has always been critically important to African Americans' progress. In 2004, the Black Press of America remains the most creditable information medium for most African Americans. The history of the Urban League, NAACP, and integration of the military and civil rights movement was made with Black newspapers being mediums for their issues. Today there are over 200 Black newspapers with a combined readership of 11 million weekly. Most Black newspapers are weeklies – the Chicago Defender and New York Challenger are dailies.
[William Reed – www.BlackPressInternational.com.]