Mansfield: Black History began with the Black Press
Author’s Note: A number of readers responded to sections of a recent article I wrote, expressing curiosity in regards to the Black Press, a subject I’m somewhat expert on. In the coming weeks I’ll share with readers my writings on this important institution. Some of the following I’ve published snippets of over the years in other articles.
It can rightfully be stated that until Freedom’s Journal, America’s first African-American newspaper, was launched at No.6 Varick Street in lower Manhattan on March 16, 1827, Black History — for all means and purposes — did not exist in America. The publication was started by Samuel Eli Cornish, a free Black Presbyterian minister who was born in Delaware and raised in Philadelphia, and John Brown Russwurm, born in Jamaica and the third man of color to earn a college degree in the United States (from Bowdoin College in Maine).
True, Blacks had been mentioned in print in America since 1619 when Captain Jope’s ship brought the first Africans to these shores and advertised them for sale. And Blacks would be continually mentioned in terms of the auction block or in runaway slave notices for centuries after that. But if they were mentioned by name at all it was by the one name they had been given by their slave masters ….Toby, Missy or Buck, or some other sobriquet more fitting a pet than a person.
Indeed, the only records of Blacks’ existence in this country up until the launching of the Journal was in the ledgers and books kept by plantation owners, right on the pages listing livestock and other property. It wasn’t until the first Black newspapers began to appear in America did any semblance of a recorded Black history be chronicled in the United States.
Only the Black Press mentioned if a Black person was born, lived, died, got married, had children, graduated from school, or participated in any other human functions that are so critical to providing individuals and families with a sense of connectedness to their past, their roots, and a vision for who they are and what they hope their children are to become.
The first Black publishers knew that a race of people with-out a sense of history — without a knowledge of who they are, who their forebears were, and from whence they came — have little chance of navigating their way into a successful future. This, then, is the importance of Black History… and by extension the critical importance of the Black Press which first chronicled and preserved that history. Although Freedom’s Journal was to last only a few years it opened the journalistic door for other Black newspapers to follow in its footsteps soon after. The world of Black folks in America — or the world of the whites that wished to suppress them — would never again be the same due to the Black Press.
In the 19th century, even more than today, African-Americans were faced with a myriad of issues that had a direct and profound impact on the progress of the race … issues that needed to be addressed head on and forthrightly if a positive outcome was to be achieved. Primary among those issues was slavery (which Blacks could do little about at the time) and the issue of colonization, which they felt they had to do something about.
The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, commonly called the American Colonization Society (ACS), was established in 1816 to ship free African-Americans to Liberia.
It was as an attempt to mollify two groups: The abolitionists who believed that the country would never allow free African-Americans to gain any sort of parity with whites and would be better off back in Africa, and slave owners who feared that free Blacks — just by their presence in the country — were a constant threat to the maintaining of slavery. Their mere presence gave slaves the notion that they too should one day be free. Any Blacks the slaveholders couldn’t own, they wanted gone from the country.
Liberia, which means “Land of the Free,” a colony on the coast of West Africa, was founded in 1817 by the ACS (with the assistance of the United States government) and the process of transporting free Blacks to the newly formed nation began soon thereafter. Mordecai M. Noah, the racist editor of the New York Enquirer was a strong supporter of the ACS and the “Back to Africa” movement and began a rabid campaign in his newspaper to en-courage the forced removal of free Blacks from New York City, which, at the time, had over 40,000 free African-American citizens; the vast majority of whom did not want to leave America.
To further the movement he made all kinds of scurrilous accusations of crime and degeneracy against Black residents in an effort to turn public sentiment against them and thus force them out of the country. The ACS also founded its own monthly newspaper, or journal, The African Repository and Colonial Journal, which purportedly was supported by a large number of free Blacks who were for colonization, but it was in actuality controlled by the same Whites that controlled the ACS.
Both papers soon began to call into question Blacks’ right to citizenship. A group of free Black New York residents, angered at the unfair and in-accurate portrayal of their race, and fearful that the call to deny them citizenship might take hold among lawmakers if not challenged, came together and decided that the only way to fight fire was with fire … and thus the notion for the first Black newspaper in America was born and Black history was about to be made.
The Journal’s Prospectus read: “We shall ever regard the constitution of the United States as our polar star. Pledged to no party, we shall endeavor to urge our brethren to use their right to the elective franchise as free citizens … Daily slandered, we think that there ought to be some channel of communion between us and the public, through which a single voice may be heard, in defense of five hundred thousand free people of colour (sic). For often have injustices been heaped upon us, when our only defense was an appeal to the Almighty: but we believe that the time had now arrived when the calumnies of our enemies should be refuted by forcible arguments.”
However, the same issue that launched the Journal — colonization — became the issue that eventually led to its demise two years later. What transpired was this: Over time, Russwurm actually came to support the Back to Africa movement, but Cornish, along with all of the other Blacks that had provided the meager financial backing for the enterprise, opposed any movement that was to be forced on Black citizens.
They felt that free Blacks that wanted to remain in America should be able to do so without fear of being viciously slandered and constantly attacked in print. Cornish left the paper, but after Russwurm emigrated to Liberia to start a newspaper there, he returned to the Journal and changed the name to the briefly published Rights of All, the second Black newspaper to be published in America.
Newspapers of the early Colonial era were circulated through a network of “authorized subscription agents” in various cities around the country and one of the first such agents for Freedom’s Journal had been David Walker, who was born a free Black in Wilmington, South Carolina in the late eighteenth century and owned a successful clothing store in Boston.
After the demise of the New York paper Walker took Black publishing to the next level by publishing three editions of his Appeal between September 1829 and June 1830. It has come to be regarded as the first Black Nationalist document authored by an African-American, in which he urged slaves to rise up against their slave masters and to “kill or be killed.”
While this sentiment had been secretly whispered in slave quarters in various Southern states almost from the very beginning of the pernicious institution, this was the first time anyone had dared to print the words, and it created a fire-storm in the country.
Walker, more than any other Black of his era, realized the importance of utilizing communications to win the battles he was fighting for his Black brothers still in bondage. And much to the consternation of White southerners he managed to get his Appeal circulated far and wide throughout the South.
North Carolina was the first of many Southern states to enact sedition laws against the circulation of publications like Appeal. It was the first time, but it would not be the last, that the cry of “sedation” would be used against Black publications for spreading the truth and calling for citizens of every race and color to take a strong stand against injustice.
It has been estimated that during the period between 1827 and 1855 as many as 100 Black newspapers, written for both Blacks and progressive Whites, were published in the United States. In addition to carrying news of the milestones in the lives of the local Black readers, the newspapers all had one thing in common: They carried uplifting stories of Blacks who had became successful through hard work, sobriety, and thriftiness. They served an important function inasmuch as they refuted the idea propagated by White slave owners that menial, backbreaking work for long hours and no pay was the only thing they were fit for.
No matter how diligent the overseers were there was always a slave or two on every plantation that had somehow secretly learned to read and the Black newspapers were eagerly awaited items around the slave quarters.
One resistance tactic that supposedly was spread via Black newspapers was the practice that became known as “Puttin’ on Old Massa’.” Slaves rightly reasoned that exhibiting hard work, resourcefulness and industry got them no better treatment than being shiftless and lazy, so many of them adopted the tactic of playing dumb to avoid work. They would make such a mess of any thing remotely complicated that the overseer would eventually quit assigning such work to them.
This strategy morphed into the character of Stepin’ Fetchit, the bumbling, head scratching, eye-rolling Black man portrayed in early films by the gifted actor Lincoln Perry. Unfortunately, some Blacks still use this tactic almost 150 years after the demise of slavery to avoid work and thereby severely limit their chances for success in life. Thus the legacy of slavery still lingers over the race.
The third successful African-American newspaper published in America, the Weekly Advocate (which began publishing in January of 1837), was, similar to the first, Freedom’s Journal, published in New York City and was also edited by Samuel Cornish. Within two months the name was changed to the Colored American. Along with other newspapers like the Mirror of Liberty, the Elevator, Freeman’s Advocate, the Palladium of Liberty, and the Herald of Freedom, the steady drumbeat for freedom for slaves and full equality for free Blacks was relentless.
And then, in 1847, the towering giant, the man who was to become known as The Lion of Anacostia, Frederick Douglass, a former slave who was the most prominent and influential antislavery lecturer and author of his day, began publishing the North Star in Rochester, New York.
The newspaper soon had a circulation of over 4,000 readers (a huge number for the day) in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. Taking as its motto “Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren,” the North Star served as a forum not only for abolitionist views, but also supported the feminist movement and the emancipation of other oppressed groups. Douglass published the North Star until June of 1851, when he and Gerrit Smith agreed to merge the North Star with the Liberty Party Paper (based out of Syracuse, New York) to form Frederick Douglass’s Paper.
From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available again in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author by visiting http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.com.