As someone who grew up in the American public school system, an educational culture based on “teaching to the test,” my knowledge of my nation’s history largely consisted of wars and presidents. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I discovered how much I had yet to learn about my country and the people of all backgrounds who contributed to making the United States what it is today.
For example, freedom of the press has been in the United States Constitution since the First Amendment was ratified, but that freedom has unfortunately been abused by some throughout the centuries to spread propaganda and perpetuate oppression. However, there have always been writers, journalists, and advocates fighting for change with the influence they wielded with words. Their devotion to equality and freedom for all is what makes them true Americans and is why they deserve more attention.
In honor of Juneteenth, here are six newspapers from the 1800s created and run by African Americans that contributed to the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Freedom’s Journal, which ran from 1827-1829, was the first newspaper completely owned and operated by African Americans in the United States. Established the same year slavery was abolished in New York, the paper was founded by John Brown Russwurm, the first Black graduate of Bowdoin College, and Samuel Eli Cornish, who also founded Shiloh Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. While the primary focus of the newspaper was ending slavery in the South and combating racial discrimination in the North, the publication also featured classified listings of schools, jobs, and affordable housing, as well as articles regarding education, living conditions, and health for the approximately 300,000 African American people living in the northern states at the time.
The newspaper only lasted a few years due to Cornish and Russwurm falling out and Russwurm using the paper to endorse the controversial American Colonization Society, which advocated for the emigration of Black Americans to Africa. Despite the paper’s questionable end, Freedom’s Journal paved the way for other Black newspapers to form and reach a wider audience for their advocacy.
The North Star
The North Star, which ran from 1847-1851, was the first antislavery newspaper created by the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery around 1818, Douglass escaped slavery and become one of the most prolific and noteworthy authors and orators of his time. As Douglass stated in the first issue of The North Star, his intention with the paper was to “promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people.”
Douglass was able to gain funding for the newspaper from his extended speaking tour in the UK and Ireland following the publication of his first autobiography. In addition, the newspaper derives its name from Polaris, the bright star that historically guided escaped slaves to freedom in the North. The North Star stopped publishing issues in June 1851 when it merged with the Liberty Party Paper to become Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
The Colored American
One of the most important newspapers on this list is The Colored American, which ran from 1839 to 1841. Based in New York City, the newspaper was launched in 1836 by Samuel Cornish, Charles Bennett Ray, and Philip Bell. Only between four and six pages per issue, the weekly paper was distributed throughout the northern seaboard in free Black communities. Part of the reason the paper succeeded for so long was because it was marketed by the most prominent abolitionist societies of its day, such as the American Anti-Slavery Society.
The editorial mission of The Colored American was “the moral, social and political elevation of the free colored people; and the peaceful emancipation of the slaves.” The newspaper’s final issue was published on Christmas Day, 1841, but it had a profound impact on its readership throughout the North.
Frederick Douglass’ Paper/Douglass’ Monthly
As Douglass’ second antislavery newspaper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper was established in 1851 as a result of the newspaper merger and ran in some form until August 1863. This weekly magazine was published in Rochester and received financial support from wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith when Douglass became a political abolitionist. In 1859, the weekly paper was supplemented with and eventually replaced by the monthly edition of the paper, Douglass’ Monthly.
A primarily abolitionist publication, its motto was “Avenge me of mine adversary” and printed antislavery and political news, including coverage of the Nat Turner Rebellion and John Brown’s trial. During the Civil War, Douglass used this paper to advocate for “the recruitment and acceptance of Black troops.” Douglass ended his publication when he was promised by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton an army commission after Douglass repeatedly met with him and President Lincoln regarding the poor pay and treatment of Black troops. Unfortunately, the commission never appeared, and Douglass’ Monthly was discontinued.
The Christian Recorder
The only newspaper on this list that is still active today, The Christian Recorder began as The Christian Herald, a weekly periodical founded by Reverend Augustus R. Green in Pittsburgh in 1848. The name changed to The Christian Recorder in 1852 after the Ninth Quadrennial Session of the General Conference located in New York City. The first editor of the newspaper was Reverend M. M. Clark, a graduate of Jefferson College who was viewed as one of the most well-educated members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African American denomination of Christianity organized in the United States.
The focus of the paper was on religious issues, but many of the articles published in the 19th century surrounded secular topics like voting rights, education, and equality for Black Americans. These articles also addressed classism, racism, and slavery, and the publication even featured work written by and about Black women. The mission of the newspaper prior to the Civil War was to “address the Biblical and moral issues of slavery while encouraging Black consciousness.” After the war and during Reconstruction, the Recorder published articles with the intent to reunite family members that were separated by slavery, and have since advocated for rights for Black individuals on issues “ranging from colonialism to lynching.”
Overall, it is important that we make sure to remember the power news and media have over the public, and how those with that level of influence are capable of making a positive impact on the sociopolitical climate of their country. As we celebrate the official abolition of slavery in our country, let us also celebrate all the writers and activists who made emancipation a reality in the Land of the Free.
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FEATURED IMAGE VIA THE PRESBYTERIAN HISTORICAL SOCIETY.