This month, the African American community of these United States celebrates 196 years of the Black Press, historically referred to as “Negro Newspapers”. It was on March 17, 1827, at a meeting of “Freed Negroes” in New York City, that Samuel Cornish, a Presbyterian minister, and John Russwurn, the first Negro college graduate in the United States, established the negro newspaper.
The Black Press has been called many things during this 196 years of evolution. Its initial publication declared “there ought to be some channel of communication between us and the public through which a single voice may be heard in defense of five hundred thousand free people of colour.” What these two men started, initially known as “Freedom’s Journal and the Rights of All”, has spun off to more than 500 Black newspapers as many embraced the need to tell our story and not have someone else tell it for us.
Today, the number of Black newspapers has dwindled to a little more than 200 with at least two, the Philadelphia Tribune at 130 years old, and the Afro American Newspaper in Baltimore at more than 125 years old, still owned by the families that founded it. At a time when few of us could read, these papers grew to be known nationally, long before the internet, social media and even the telephone itself. It was often the low-waged Black railroad worker, like the porter handling the bags of traveling white people, who threw out copies of the Chicago Defender as the trains passed through “no-stop” small Southern towns. Part of the success was that we all knew we were Black thanks to “Jim Crow” segregation laws.
Today, thanks to the Black Press, we have histories we can read. The book and movie, “Hidden Figures”, about the Black women math experts that made the space program work, were based in large part on articles written in the Norfolk Journal and Guide newspaper and kept in the paper’s archives. Graphic pictures and articles about Black soldiers in World War I can be found at the Afro American Newspaper in Baltimore.
Today, with racist Whites seeking to ban all knowledge of the Black experience in America, we must protect and preserve the Black Press as our only “Trusted Messenger". While we must use the internet and social media, let us not lose our souls and our knowledge of who we are in the process.
It is the Black Press that has written about “the stony road we have trod”; helped us feel the pain on our backs and that of our ancestors when we speak of the “Chastening rod”. It is the Black Press that has provided the steady beat, so that our “weary feet have brought us to the place for which our fathers sighed”. It is the Black Press that will help some of us return to the place where we met God before so many became drunk with the ways and wine of the world, which James Weldon Johnson spoke of when writing the Negro Natonal Anthem.
Let's keep the Black Press where it belongs, in our heart and lives as our struggle for equality and fairness continues.