Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 70: What started the black newspaper industry in America?
In this column, we’ve traced the influence of African-American newspapers in reporting the unreported, celebrating the hidden and unsung and lobbying for change. Who can forget the Pittsburgh Courier’s role in advancing the “Double V” Campaign to rally the support of blacks during World War II—not to mention the paper’s coverage of Jackie Robinson’s first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, or the space it provided our old friend Joel Rogers so he could share his “100 Facts About the Negro”? Or how about the Chicago Defender, that chronicler of the Great Migration and Civil Rights Movement before anyone capitalized the names of those developments?
We all have our local favorites: the Atlanta Daily World, Baltimore Afro-American, Cleveland Call and Post, the Los Angeles Sentinel, New York Amsterdam News, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Philadelphia Tribune, to name a few. When Donald Graham, Donna Byrd and I launched The Root online in 2008, our goal was to honor these ancestral black newspapers by emulating their style, their stellar roster of talent, their mix of politics, culture and history, their fierceness in filling in the gaps in the national conversation about race and following the journey of the African-American people over those “many rivers” that they have crossed.
But did you ever wonder what the name of the very first black newspaper in the United States was—where it was founded, by whom,and why? The answer, for your next water-cooler conversation, is found on the other side of Emancipation, in fact, long before the Civil War, at a time when the nation was stretching its geographic limits westward. In that expansion, of course, it brought the institution of chattel slavery, and the future of free black people remained a matter of fierce debate. To paraphrase Hamlet: To colonize or not to colonize the freed slaves—would the country force them to return to Africa or allow them to remain in the States?—that was the question. The name of the first black newspaper published in America, appropriately enough, was Freedom’s Journal, and its first issue rolled off the press in March 1827.
The paper’s founding editors—senior and junior, respectively—were the free black men Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm. A mulatto born free in Delaware in 1795, Cornish was also a trained minister who had studied in Philadelphia, did missionary work with slaves in Maryland and established the first black Presbyterian church in New York City In his priceless new study, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (2014), historian David Brion Davis calls Cornish “the most important black journalist before Frederick Douglass.”
Russwurm was a Jamaican native born free in 1799 to a white father and black mother. After moving with his father to Canada, then to Maine, Russwurm studied at Bowdoin College as a contemporary of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1826, Russwurm became only the third African-American college graduate in this country. Briefly, he considered becoming a doctor and moving to the black nation of Haiti, or accepting an offer to work as a free black émigré for the American Colonization Society’s new effort to repatriate freed slaves to Liberia.
Instead, Russwurm met Cornish in New York City, and, like the fateful meeting of the newspaper men whom the actors Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton played in Citizen Kane, the rest is history—black history. In March 1827, Davis tells us, Russwurm, Cornish and other free black leaders conceived of creating the first black newspaper. It happened in the New York home of Boston Crummell, an ex-slave and the father of Alexander Crummell, the first African-American graduate of the University of Cambridge, future black missionary, scholar and founder in 1897 of the American Negro Academy.
In the background, writes Davis, “a number of pressing issues faced the black community. The Missouri Crisis of 1819-1821 had suddenly exposed slavery as a critically divisive issue that could threaten the very existence of the nation, reinforcing desires to repress and avoid the subject as much as possible. There was also an inevitable tendency to blame blacks for the country’s most dangerous problem. The nature and future of antislavery was therefore much in doubt.” And many whites—and some blacks—believed the only hope for the country’s emancipated slaves was for them to be returned “home” to Africa; otherwise, they feared, both races would be dragged down in an unholy race war.