Too Long Have Others Spoken for Us


"After the Civil war, there was an enormous burst of energy, a desire to communicate, a desire to connect, with black people establishing newspapers in any town, even tiny ones. It was their first opportunity to use the written word without fear of reprisal."

-Phyl Garland- Journalist


The year 1827 marked the beginning of an era in which African Americans would use the printed word as a means of political protest, when few other outlets for black public expression were available. Before the Civil War, newspapers in the North became a vital force in the antislavery movement; after the war, black newspapers in both the North and the South helped to forge cohesive communities of formerly enslaved African Americans. And when, following Reconstruction, racist violence targeted African Americans, the black press once again took up the mantle of political activism.

The black press came to life in 1827, when a group of African American New Yorkers, no longer able to tolerate constant denigration of the black population in the pages of the mainstream press, pooled their resources to found Freedom's Journal. John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, the editors of Freedom's Journal, proclaimed in their first issue that black Americans would now have a means by which to "plead our own cause"; they would no longer have to depend on white abolitionists to speak for them in the white press. Freedom's Journal ceased publication after only two years, but broke new ground both as an experiment in black entrepreneurship and as the inaugural instrument for public expression by African Americans where none had existed before.

Between 1827 and 1861, when the Civil War began, some two dozen black-owned and -operated newspapers were founded in Northern cities. The North Star, edited by Frederick Douglass, was the most influential. Its readership included not only African Americans but also presidents and members of Congress, who used the paper to keep abreast of the activities of the antislavery movement. Under Douglassís visionary leadership, The North Star firmly established the black press as an indispensable tool of abolitionism. It would also provide a model for generations of black political and social activism to come.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, emancipation from slavery sparked a new wave of black newspapers -- and whole new reasons for them to exist. Prior to emancipation, the black press could not publish or circulate its papers in the slave states of the South. Further, under slavery, African Americans had been barred from learning to read. With their newfound access to education, African Americans strove to achieve literacy. They embraced the newspapers as a sign of their freedom, and as a source of information about their people and their communities. The black press of the Reconstruction era dedicated itself to building communities of free black men and women in both the North and South.

Reconstruction came to a close in 1876. President Rutherford B. Hayes removed protections that had been extended to newly freed slaves, unleashing a torrent of violence against African Americans. Between 1876 and 1919, at least 3,000 black men were murdered by white lynch mobs. The Southern white press failed to condemn racist violence and even encouraged the hatred that fueled the mobs. In response, black reporters made a public record of crimes against African Americans that went unprosecuted and unreported by the mainstream press, in order to inform their readers about these new dangers. The black press also attempted to stem the tide false accusations levied against black men by whites to justify the actions of the lynch mobs. These efforts were not without risk. Ida B. Wells, editor of the Memphis Free Speech, traveled throughout the South to report on lynching. When a mob attacked her paperís office, Wells realized that her life was in danger. Left with little choice but to flee the South, she headed north and continued her career as a writer for the New York Age.

In 1893, representatives of the black pressís ante-bellum roots and its new radical leadership joined forces to protest the grievous lack of African American participation in the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The exposition commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbusís fleet on North American soil. It completely omitted mention of black history and culture in the United States. Frederick Douglass had been a journalist for almost fifty years. Ida B. Wells was just emerging as one of the black pressís most prominent young activist journalists. They co-wrote a pamphlet condemning the exposition plannersí oversights. When the exposition acquiesced and hastily organized Colored American Day, Wells boycotted the event but Douglass attended and gave a rousing speech, one of the last of his long career. A young man from Georgia named Robert S. Abbott was in the audience. Thwarted by racism in his attempts to pursue careers in the printing trade and in law, Abbott was inspired by Frederick Douglassís speech to enter the field of journalism. His tenure as founding publisher of the Chicago Defender is a subject of the next section.

Witnesses

Phyl Garland, journalist

James Grossman, historian

Vernon Jarrett, journalist

Christopher Reed, historian

Jane Rhodes, historian

Discussion Questions

What social and political factors contributed to the founding of the ante-bellum black press in cities of the northern United States?

During Reconstruction, what changes led to the growing importance of the black press in African American communities?

How did the black press in northern cities differ from the black press in southern cities? Try to describe the conditions under which black newspapers operated in the North and the South after the Civil War.

Consider that even in the free northern states, few African Americans owned property, and that the privileges of citizenship, such as voting rights, were denied to the black population. Under these conditions, what role could the black press play in the political process?