STANDING UP FOR THE RACE

The North was the promised land. It was the land of hope. But it was not quite the fulfillment of the promised land as they had anticipated. Yes, they had better jobs, their children could go to better schools, and they could vote. But there were so many other obstacles, like racism: the transfer of the Jim Crow of the South, to the racism of the North.

-Timuel Black, historian

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the United States was transformed by technological innovation, powerful social movements, and political upheaval abroad and at home. African Americans often found themselves at the forefront of change in the political and economic landscape, as the nation shifted from a predominantly agrarian economy to industrialization. Correspondingly, the black population, once concentrated in the South, moved northward and westward. These changes did not always take place easily: white mobs still terrorized southern blacks and by the late 1910s, race riots reached northern cities. The black press flourished in its dual role as an adversarial force committed to protesting racial injustice, and as a catalyst for the growth and vibrancy of new African American communities across the nation.

With the industrialization revolutionized production, late 19th century and early twentieth century Americans experienced not only an explosion of new consumer goods, but also, and perhaps more importantly, an infrastructure of communications and transportation technologies that criss-crossed the nation. From airplanes and automobiles to telephones and motion pictures and other innovations, people and information traveled at unprecedented rates. Benefitting from increasingly industrialized printing processes and the growing thirst for information, newspapers of all types flourished. Black newspapers were no exception. By 1910, over 275 black newspapers were being published in cities throughout the United States, reaching a cumulative circulation of half a million readers.

One of the most influential of these papers was the California Eagle, founded in 1879 by John James Neimore. The Eagle served as a catalyst in the growth of African American communities in Los Angeles. It reached out to African Americans in the rest of the nation, calling for them to seize opportunities available in the growing cities of the West, especially Los Angeles. When Neimore died in 1912, he turned control of the paper over to Charlotta Spears Bass. Mrs. Bass, as she was known, had joined the Eagle a few years earlier, selling subscriptions and working her way up its ranks. She was a deeply committed publisher and editor, as well as a dynamic community activist and leader. Through the newspaper and other public forums, Mrs. Bass spoke out on issues facing Los Angeles' black communities, from police brutality to discrimination in housing. She even took on the nascent film industry, leading a boycott that spread nationwide against D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, an epic that celebrated the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, Robert S. Abbott founded the Chicago Defender. Abbott had made Chicago his home after hearing Frederick Douglass's inspirational speech at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Abbott composed and published the first issue of the paper in his landlady's kitchen in 1905, and sold it himself on the street. It later made him a millionaire.

It was not uncommon for newspapers of the era to take positions in the issues they covered, or to use humor and irony to rouse the emotions of the readers. The journalistic style that purported to be objective and claimed that its role is simply to report factual information, was a recent innovation of some late nineteenth century white newspapers. However, Abbott's Defender cultivated the art of irony, even sarcasm, and became known for its use of acerbic language and huge, bold headlines. Moreover, Abbott took full advantage of the fact that his paper was located in Chicago. Unlike publishers and editors of Southern black newspapers, Abbott could take an aggressive stance against the lynchings which still raged through the South, with little concern that his press would be destroyed or his life threatened.

Black Southerners did, however, read the Defender. Abbott sent copies to newspaper vendors in the South, creating an enthusiastic market for news from the North. As agricultural mechanization displaced the livelihoods of some sharecroppers, Abbott saw a chance for poor southern blacks to make better lives for themselves in the industrial North. The Defender published the names of companies who were hiring workers, train schedules, tips on how to adjust to urban life, and even poems and songs encouraging African Americans to head north.

By 1916, they did, by the thousands. The black migration northward escalated even further when the United States entered World War I and the draft left many jobs vacant. With thousands of agricultural workers leaving the South, its economy suffered. Many communities tried to ban the sale of black newspapers. But Abbott was determined to keep the Defender in circulation throughout the South, and resorted to surreptitious distribution through helpful Pullman car porters. The exodus from the South continued while black communities in northern cities grew.

Not all northern whites welcomed their new neighbors. Racial tension in Chicago and other northern cities flared. By the time violence peaked during the 'Red Summer' of 1919, race riots had killed hundreds of people, most of them African American.

Despite the pall that these riots cast, African Americans across the nation continued to strive for economic security and freedom from injustice. The black press continued to grow; in the early 1920s, 500 black newspapers were in print. They offered news of the day, information that helped newcomers make their way in the urban North and West. Just as importantly, they sought to instill hope and pride in black people.

Witnesses

Timuel Black, historian

Wallace Burney

Earl Calloway, journalist

Dora Harris Glasco

Walter Gordon, former newsboy

James Grossman, historian

Vernon Jarrett, journalist

Christopher Reed, historian

Jane Rhodes, historian

Patrick Washburn, historian

Discussion Questions

What is advocacy journalism? How does it differ from other journalistic models?

What major developments in transportation and communications, of which black newspapers were a part, occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century?

Discuss the evolution of the black press as an activist tool. Give examples of both protests led by the papers and how they helped build black communities in cities of the North and West.

What was the role of women in the black press of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?