In 1827, America viewed and treated Blacks as second-class citizens. Advance the calendar to 2017. The status of African Americans has improved in some regards, but stark disparities remain and continue to worsen. The 2016 presidential election included a candidate whose campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” but truth be told, America has never been great for Blacks.
The History of the Black Press
Justice for Blacks was boldly championed on March 16, 1827, with the birth of the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, which was published as a weekly tabloid in New York City. Although slavery in New York state was abolished that same year, mainstream newspapers brazenly disseminated information that negatively portrayed Blacks. The Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., John B. Russwurm, and Samuel Cornish, frustrated with the distorted representations of their cause, pooled their resources during a meeting in Manhattan to start Freedom’s Journal. Russwurm was 28-years-old and among the first Blacks to graduate from an American university, and Cornish was a preacher.
During the slavery era, slave auction advertisements were commonly seen in newspapers. Images of Blacks during the Jim Crow era were just as brash, exaggerating features and advancing stereotypes. Aunt Jemima represented the overweight, subservient Black woman who was only good for cooking. The Mandingo image perpetuated the notion that Black men were sex crazed and violent. Other images portrayed Black babies as bait for alligators, effectively comparing them to animals. Images of black people happily eating watermelon and dancing were also widely published. For those Blacks who did not act according to White expectations, images of them enduring beatings in the public square were made into postcards and other novelty items. Blacks could not open a newspaper and read any positive information about themselves or see any images that accurately portrayed them. Issues of importance to their community were not covered. The founders of Freedom’s Journal saw the unfair depiction as a grave injustice and an impediment to the advancement of the population. They expressed their commitment to righting this wrong on the pages of the first edition [sic]:
We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public 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. We are aware that there are many instances of vice among us, but we avow that it is because no one has taught its subjects to be virtuous; many instances of poverty, because no sufficient accommodated to minds contracted by slavery, and deprived of early education have been made, to teach them how to husband their hard earnings, and to secure to themselves comfort.
The Black press began with the sole intention of being a contrast to what was in the White press. The single focus was to represent the Black community in a dignified manner and to shine a positive light on its members’ lives. Freedom’s Journal and the hundreds of Black newspapers that followed it in the 20th century affirmed Black people’s existence. Births were announced, deaths were mourned, marriages were celebrated, and achievements were showcased.
In the early days of the Black press, journalists who were shunned by mainstream media gained celebrity status. They have been referred to as “soldiers without swords” because they used their pens, typewriters, and cameras to give voice to the voiceless. The pay was low and the work was hard, but it was more than just a job.
The Civil Rights era can be viewed as a good time and bad time for these soldiers. Black journalists were poised to cover the demonstrations, bombings, and other key events based on their years of reporting on news in the Black community. They were the trusted entities and often the first ones to get the story. But the mainstream media also began investigating Civil Rights events. They had resources the Black press could not afford and the ability to get the news out across the country on TV and radio. This opened the door for Black journalists to be hired by mainstream media, causing a mass exodus of journalists from the Black press, a consequence that continues to be problematic today.
Black Female Journalism Trailblazers
Conversations about the origins of the Black press can’t occur without the inclusion of Ida B. Wells, Charlotta Bass, Alice Allison Dunnigan, and Ethel L. Payne.
Ida B. Wells was part owner and editor of The Memphis Free Speech, a newspaper that gained notoriety for its radical reporting on the disenfranchisement of Blacks. Wells was known for her bold coverage of lynchings in the south. Her activist-oriented reporting infuriated the White community, so much so that the newspaper office was attacked by angry White mobs. She fled to the north and continued to document the injustice of Blacks through her writing. As the first Black female journalist to be taken seriously and entrusted to write meaningful content, Wells became a staff writer for the New York Age. Published in Harlem, it was one of the most influential newspapers of its time. Wells feared for her safety and it is said she carried a pistol.
Charlotta Bass was an unassuming Black woman but a powerhouse journalist. She started out selling subscriptions at the California Eagle, a Black newspaper in Los Angeles that used its pages to encourage Blacks to migrate to L.A. The newspaper was a ready reference for the newcomers with employment and housing resources. Bass was handpicked in 1912 by the founder, John James Neimore, to take over when he was gravely ill, making her the first African American woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States. Through her leadership at the newspaper, she influenced many social campaigns. One such case was during the release of D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), which negatively depicted Reconstruction-era Black politicians and celebrated Ku Klux Klan violence against Blacks. Bass challenged the film industry to be “responsible morally for contents of products.” Through dogged articles and editorials, the California Eagle protested the film. Other Black newspapers across the country joined their campaign, resulting in “The Birth of a Nation” being banned in some communities.
Alice Allison Dunnigan was an esteemed journalist of the Associated Negro Press, the first national news service for the Black press. Today, the National Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA) fulfills that role, boasting a membership of 200 Black-owned newspapers across the United States. (The NNPA is the same association that Omarosa Manigault, President Donald Trump’s Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison, abruptly walked out of a meeting within March 2017.) Dunnigan was the first African American female correspondent to receive White House credentials and the first Black female member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries. Dunnigan’s spearheading continued with her being the first Black journalist to accompany a president, Harry S. Truman while traveling. Truman was on a cross-country train trip for his reelection in 1948. Dunnigan paid her own travel fare but broke a color barrier.
Ethel L. Payne worked for the Chicago Defender, a much-revered newspaper during the early days of the Black press, which is still respected to this day. Its publisher, Robert Abbott, was a mastermind at circulation tactics. He famously used the Black Pullman porters to sneak his newspapers into southern communities that had banned it because of Abbott’s exposure of southern racism. Payne has been referred to as “The First Lady of the Black Press.” She built her reputation by asking questions others dared not ask. Her distinguished journalism career started with the Chicago Defender and went on to her becoming the first Black female radio and television commentator on a national network at CBS. She became a White House Correspondent at a time when the Chicago Defender was one of the few Black newspapers to have a bureau in D.C. Now April D. Ryan, White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, is standing on the shoulders of her and Dunnigan’s efforts. In honor of Payne’s importance to journalism, she was featured on a U.S. Postage Stamp in 2002.
Gone Are the Days of Selling Newspapers on Street Corners and at Churches
The glory days of the Black press may be fading into the past, but the current state of politics and the dismal societal status of African Americans warrant the need for the Black press to reinvigorate itself. The issues of slavery, Jim Crow, and other early 20th-century disenfranchisement are behind us, but the current issues of Black mass incarceration, unemployment, police violence, housing discrimination, voter right suppression, and other social indicators make the need for the Black press today just as urgent as it was in 1827.
The Black elderly population has the fondest affinity with Black newspapers. They remember them being a staple in their homes growing up and a trusted source as they navigated throughout their lives. In contrast, very few millennials have actually held a Black newspaper in their hands or read them on a frequent basis. In a city like Milwaukee, which has three African American weekly newspapers (Milwaukee Community Journal, Milwaukee Times, and Milwaukee Courier), one commonly runs into millennials who have never heard of the publications.
Black newspapers need paid staff. Many of the publications rely on information that is provided to them from the various newswires, companies providing press releases, churches, and families dropping off information. Real and breaking news stories as well as hard-hitting editorials are often lacking in some Black newspapers because they do not have staff reporters. Oftentimes, the reporting is outsourced to stringers, individuals contracted to complete projects or work on an irregular basis, which doesn’t allow for continuity of coverage or seamless linkage between print, online, and social media.
As the Washington Post noted with its ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ campaign in February 2017, when the freedom of the press is silenced, threats to our democracy are able to thrive without critical challenges and exposure. The same thing is true for the Black press. When it is no longer serving the Black community in the tradition of John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, the disenfranchisement of Africans Americans continues to escalate. The current political era and the discrediting of the press, in general, is similar to when J. Edgar Hoover threatened to charge members of the Black press with treason. He was critical of them due to their ‘Double V’ campaign during World War II. Some Blacks did not feel motivated to fight a war for the rights of others when they themselves were subjected to forced segregation, even within the military. The ‘Double V’ campaign denoted a victory abroad for the US and a victory at home against segregation. Hoover feared the Black press was discouraging its readers from supporting the war. John Sengstacke, Chicago Defender, was the most prominent Black publisher at the time. He refused to be censored by Hoover and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Sengstacke took his disgruntlement directly to Attorney General Francis Biddle, and the matter of treason was later dismissed. Hoover could not go forward without the support of the Attorney General.
The Black press today must return to being as strong as it was during the days of Sengstacke leadership at the Chicago Defender. It was a formidable force, so much so that the FBI had files on the newspapers and their leaders.
The time is now for the Black press to take up their swords and fight. It is also time for the Black community to actively support their work. Through consistent readership and financial backing, the Black press can return to its roots as the vanguards of justice, because, the truth is, the issues and concerns of the Black community will never be rightfully articulated by mainstream media.
Black newspapers throughout the United States during the Civil Rights Movement: American Citizen, People’s Advocate, The Weekly Anglo-African, Chicago Eagle, The Savannah Tribune, Negro World, Afro-independent, The Broad Ax, The Indianapolis Freeman, The Colored American, The Cleveland Gazette, Pittsburgh Plain Dealer, South Carolina Leader, The Colored Visitor, The Pacific Appeal, Pittsburgh Courier, Richmond Planet, Minneapolis ObserverThe Herald of Freedom, The Enterprise (Omaha, Neb.), Indianapolis Recorder, Negro World (Marcus Garvey),
The North Star (Frederick Douglass), The Arkansas Freeman, Richmond Free Press, The Free Man’s Press, The Colored Tennessean, The State Journal, The Langston City Herald, The Louisiana Weekly, Atlanta Daily World, The Washington Bee, Afro-American Advance, The Anglo-African
This feature originally appeared in the Madness issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Madness issue here.