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.
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:
“Education being an object of the highest importance to the welfare of society, we shall endeavour to present just and adequate views of it, and to urge upon our brethren the necessity and expediency of training their children, while young, to habits of industry, and thus forming them for becoming useful members of society. It is surely time that we should awake from this lethargy of years, and make a concentrated effort for the education of our youth. We form a spoke in the human wheel, and it is necessary that we should understand our pendence on the different parts, and theirs on us, in order to perform our part with propriety.”
With this goal in mind, Freedom’s Journal contained articles and stories that could be consumed by readers of all ages and literacy levels. McHenry gives examples of how varied this content could be. Regarding the paper’s “Varieties” column, she writes, “[i]n one early issue it included instructions for the proper burial of corpses alongside a table outlining the consumption of wheat and other grains in the United Kingdom. Other ‘newsworthy’ items printed in the same column were titled ‘A Polish Joke,’ ‘Rare Instances of Self-Devotion,’ and ‘Curious Love Letter.’ ” What the paper termed “useful knowledge” could come in a variety of different forms, Bacon adds in her article; “[a]n article about a fund to assist New York City’s poor with their fuel costs or a notice about the work of the African Dorcas Association, which collected clothing for children attending New York's African Free Schools, gave community members vital information.”
A Tumultuous Two Years
Although Freedom’s Journal served an important role for African Americans in New York and beyond, it did not last long. Within six months of the first issue, Cornish resigned. Scholars have often pointed to the break between the two editors as a result of their increasingly differing opinions on colonization. Of Cornish, Bacon writes in her book, “[h]e was a member of the Haytian Emigration Society but became opposed to the idea of leaving the country after many emigrants to Haiti returned, dissatisfied to the United States. In particular, he was strongly averse to African colonization.” Russwurm, on the other hand, came around to the idea of colonization because, as Davis observes, he “ultimately became convinced that the depth and immutability of white racism presented a permanent obstacle to slave emancipation—unless some way could be found to remove free blacks.”
Importantly, however, Russwurm did not announce his public support for African colonization until 1829, two years after Cornish resigned. And even after leaving, Cornish remained involved as a “General Agent,” “authorized to transact any business relating to it,” as Bacon relates and James affirms. Instead, Cornish left to work in education, and Russwurm himself noted in the paper in January 1828 that Cornish had become the New York Manumission Society’s General Visiting Agent for the African Free Schools.
The paper still faced problems, however. It was difficult for Russwurm to attract subscribers, and many subscribers did not pay their dues on time, or at all. In what would later become an ironic twist, the paper first alienated white readers by initially opposing colonization, then Russwurm began to lose black support by publishing articles supporting colonization. As Bacon writes in her book, “[p]ieces opposing colonization continued to be published during 1828, but in smaller numbers, and by late 1828 the number of positive articles about Liberia and its settlers had increased.” James adds, “What triggered this apparently sudden change of heart is not at all clear. No catalyst can be identified, and it does appear, as Russwurm himself wrote, to have been a decision arrived at after an accumulation of experience and observation, capped by careful study of the limited options available to African Americans.”
Other scholars argue that the American Colonization Society had already been at work trying to bring Russwurm into its fold. For example, Peter Hinks writes in his 1997 book To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance, “[t]he last several months of Freedom’s Journal’s brief two-year existence were given over to the pro-colonizationist editorializing of John Russwurm, who had been recently converted to the ACS after many months of pressuring from that organization.”
It was this growing support for colonization that led Russwurm to end the paper, and, eventually, to leave the country. As he disclosed in a January 1829 letter to Ralph Gurley of the ACS—the same man who offered him the job after he graduated from Bowdoin—“I am on the eve of relinquishing the publication of Freedom’s Journal, with my views on the subject of Colonization materially changed … I am willing to be employed in the colony [of Liberia] in any business, for the performance of which you may deem me qualified.”
Russwurm made his support of colonization known in Freedom’s Journal in an editorial date March 14, 1829: “Sensible then, as all are of the disadvantages under which we at present labour, can any consider it a mark of folly, for us to cast our eyes upon some other portion of the globe where all these inconveniences are removed where the Man of Colour freed from the fetters and prejudice, and degradation, under which he labours in this land, may walk forth in all the majesty of his creation—a new born creature—a Free Man!”
The Legacy: Back to Africa
The last issue of Freedom’s Journal appeared on March 28, 1829. It was succeeded on May 29, 1829, by Rights of All, one of two newspapers Samuel Cornish would return to edit. The other was the weekly Colored American. Samuel Cornish died in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 6, 1858.
Under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, Russwurm left for Liberia in September 1829 and arrived at Monrovia on Nov. 12. There, Russwurm edited the Liberia Herald, “effectively West Africa’s, and probably the continent’s, first black newspaper,” James writes. Russwurm later served as the governor of a separate colony for free blacks at Cape Palmas sponsored by the Maryland State Colonization Society. As James notes, Maryland leaders believed a black man could better survive Africa’s brutal climate, but that proved untrue, and Russwurm suffered from tropical diseases.
Russwurm made one final trip to the United States, in August-September 1848, to receive medical treatment, visit family in Maine and attend a dinner in his honor hosted by the Maryland State Colonization Society in Baltimore. Upon his return to Africa, Russwurm said his treatment “ha[d] been successful, and added 12 or 15 years to my life,” according to James. He was wrong. John Russwurm would die three years later, on June 9, 1851.
The judgment of history has not been kind to Russwurm for his pro-colonization activities. As James relates, in 1936, the esteemed black bibliophile Arthur Schomburg wrote that Russwurm’s legacy was a troubled one: “John B. Russwurm was a very brilliant journalist and teacher … the question that is pertinent to ask now is, did he sell his birthright for a mess of pottage? We believe so.” On the other hand, Schomburg argued, “[m]en like [Samuel] Cornish, who battled in and out of season for the American colored people to remain here in the land of their birth rather than to run across the sea chasing rainbows, served posterity best, and now merit our everlasting thanksgiving.”
But Russwurm’s legacy goes far beyond these critiques. For one, he and Cornish ushered in the astonishing flowering of the black press. As James puts it, “[m]any others, including Douglass, Du Bois, and Garvey, would follow in their footsteps.” And Bacon writes, “Freedom’s Journal established that an independent press had a central role in black activism, that it was central to the struggle for freedom, self-determination, and civil rights.”
In this way, you can draw a directly line from Freedom’s Journal to the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender during the heyday of the civil rights movement—and, Donald Graham, Donna Byrd, Lyne Pitts and I hope, to the work we are striving to do at The Root, 24/7 today.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.