The First Issue
There had been earlier black publications in the U.S., to be sure, as Hayward Woody Farrar reminds us in his entry for the “Black Press” in the Encyclopedia of African American History. Among them were Benjamin Banneker’s almanacs (1792-1796); the landmark pamphlets of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen (1794) and by Prince Hall, the founder of the Prince Hall Masons (1797). Orations by such noted black leaders as Peter Williams Jr. and Joseph Sidney also appeared in print. But Freedom’s Journal was different, a black newspaper deliberately conceived as a counterbalance to prevailing white newspapers of the day, which only seemed to focus on negative news stories about blacks that fit a racist frame. The editors of Freedom’s Journal said as much in the paper’s premier issue, dated March 16, 1827:
“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, though in the estimation of some mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrow we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends to the discredit of any person of colour; and pronounce anathemas and denounce our whole body for the misconduct of this guilty one.”
In her 2007 book, Freedom’s Journal: The First African-American Newspaper, Jacqueline Bacon puts the number of its subscribers at “at least 800.” Yet Bacon and other scholars recognize that subscription numbers don’t tell the entire story. As Elizabeth McHenry notes in her 2002 book, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies, “[e]ven if verifiable circulation figures were available they would also be unreliable as indicators of the number of Freedom’s Journal readers, as placement in reading rooms and the sharing of copies among whole congregations and associations as well as between friends and neighbors distinguishes the newspaper’s actual readership from its list of subscribers.” It must be said, though, that the newspaper’s editors were understandably nonplussed with this arrangement, criticizing the “newspaper borrowing gentry” who, Bacon relates, commonly asked, “ ‘Will you lend me your last paper? I only want to read it.’ ”
In any event, the paper’s reach was impressive, McHenry explains, and “[a] network of agents located throughout the urban North and informal systems of distribution that enabled the publication to reach black readers as far away as Canada, the Caribbean, and New England ensured that Freedom’s Journal would transcend its local New York City area to become a national newspaper.” One of these agents bears special mention. The fiery abolitionist David Walker, a free black man who had relocated from North Carolina to South Carolina and up north to Boston, was an “Authorised Agent” beginning with the paper’s first issue. But he was more than a distributor. In his 2010 book, The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The Life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer, 1799-1851, Winston James writes, “Walker also contributed to the paper, and it was in Freedom’s Journal that his 1828 ‘Address Delivered Before the General Colored Association’ in Boston first appeared in print. A few months later, he developed it into his justly famous and militant Appeal, published as a pamphlet in 1829.”
What Was Freedom’s Journal?
Walker’s participation gives us a hint of the type of material that Freedom’s Journal contained. For its first year, the paper was published in four pages with a total of 16 columns. In March 1828, it expanded to eight pages and a total of 24 columns. In her article “The History of Freedom’s Journal: A Study in Empowerment and Community,” appearing in the Winter 2003 edition of the Journal of African American History, Jacqueline Bacon notes, “[m]ost original material appears to have been written by African Americans, although white authors occasionally contributed pieces written specifically for the newspaper. In addition, as was common practice at the time, articles were frequently reprinted from other periodicals.”
The paper’s editors took a broad-based approach to racial uplift. “To some extent,” McHenry writes, “Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm identified discrimination against the free black population as a problem [stemming from misunderstandings caused by] misleading representation. The majority press’s erroneous and incomplete reports on free blacks led to inaccuracies about black people becoming lodged in the white imagination.” Freedom’s Journal therefore sought to give a more accurate representation of black accomplishments, which subsequent black editors would also attempt to do, even in throughout the 20th century.
The paper also focused on moral uplift. “In the columns of the paper,” Bacon writes in her book, “the editors and contributors promoted self-help efforts that would lead to moral improvement, advocating that African Americans seek educational advancement and economic self-sufficiency, observe decorum, serve as exemplars, and avoid vice.” Writing on Russwurm in the American National Biography Online, Penelope Campbell provides a list of some of the other topics the paper covered: “Weekly issues carried a variety of material: poetry, letters of explorers and others in Africa, information on the status of slaves in slaveholding states, legislation pending or passed in states that affected blacks, notices of job openings, and personal news such as marriages and obituaries.”
One of the paper’s central concerns was education. In fact, in its first editorial, it stated: