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March 14, 2007

The black press – Lesson Plan

By Angela Dodson, adjunct instructor for media issues and communications


Civics, United States history, Language Arts (journalism and communications)


Approximately three, 40-minute class periods, if the teacher is using the recommended film; or one to two class periods using other materials suggested.


  • Students will be able to identify major historical figures and publications of the black press and relate them to national civic issues and broader historical themes in a paper or discussion.
  • Students will be able to formulate ideas about the role of the press in a democracy and discuss them in class or small groups.
  • Students will be able to identify various types of jobs in the media and discuss or write about them to analyze their career objectives.


Publications owned and largely staffed by African Americans have made significant contributions to the nation as a whole. Exploring their role can help students understand central concepts of how our democracy works and how ordinary people have shaped it by exercising the right to a free and vibrant press. The black press is also a model for studying how the media have evolved. A national press, once dominated by advocacy journalism, has given way to our relatively modern concept of an objective press with room for clearly labeled opinion and for specialized outlets serving and advocating for specific audiences.

According to the Africana encyclopedia, Freedom’s Journal, founded in New York City on March 16, 1827, was the first black newspaper established in the United States. Owned by John B. Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish, it took a vigorous stand against slavery. As many as 40 black newspapers began publishing before the Civil War, most of them in the North. One of them, The North Star, established by Frederick Douglass, eclipsed others in influence as a voice for abolition. After the war, black publishing thrived, and by 1890 an estimated 575 black publications were in existence.

In the early 20th century, black newspapers in the North – as well as the Pullman car porters who often spirited them south – are credited with fueling the Great Migration of blacks out of the dying southern agricultural economy to industrial jobs in the cities. Leading newspapers included the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, whose influence even exceeded their respectable circulations of about 250,000 to 350,000 each. (Later their readership would shrink to less than a tenth of those figures.)

By the time of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, nearly every city large and small supported at least one black newspaper, more than 300 in all. The numbers quickly declined as the compelling and dramatic story of the civil rights movement moved into mainstream papers. Readers, and just as importantly some of their most talented staff members, moved with the story. The larger papers had more money to throw at the news and could therefore cover more events. Daily papers, which had largely either ignored or stereotyped blacks, had also begun to broaden their outlook. Many first hired blacks to help cover the civil rights and urban riot stories and later for more day-to-day news of black communities, where white reporters often could not get access. Controversies over whether the industry was hiring and promoting people of color quickly enough or too rapidly continue to haunt the industry.

In the meantime, the black magazine industry continued to thrive with such publications as Ebony and Jet, and by the 1970s even gave rise to highly profitable mass-market titles like Essence and Black Enterprise. Newer African American publications, including magazines and Web sites, tend to be highly specialized, covering books or music, for instance.

The dominance of television, the rise of Internet news sources and a decline in readership of printed publications remain challenges for the media as a whole. So do huge losses of advertising overall. African American publications often had difficulty attracting major advertising and continue to suffer in a weak economy. At the same time, the trend toward specialization offers new advertising opportunities for many kinds of publications for specific ethnic, age or interest groups.

Main Source: Microsoft Encarta Africana


Lesson 1: Pre-learning activity. Ask the students to look for African American newspapers or other ethnic or women’s newspapers from your area, or gather them yourself, display and point out a few in class. Preview the topic based on the overview. If you are using video, give introductory remarks on Day 1. Then show the video, Soldiers Without Swords, dividing over two or more class periods if necessary

Lesson 2: Present Handouts #1-3 and review key dates in the timeline of the press and the early history, particularly of abolitionist papers. Referring to Handout #4, Phyl Garland’s quote, ask students what is the difference between advocacy journalism and objective journalism? Is there a need or obligation for advocacy in media today? What is objectivity? Ask your students to discuss the role of the black press. If you wish, divide students into small groups to discuss one or more of the questions below and report back on their comments.

Lesson 2 or 3: If you are using the video, you may wish to give a brief quiz after each segment, possibly at the beginning of class on the second and third day, Day 2 and Day 3, in 40-minute class periods, or ask students to write a one-paragraph reaction to the previous lesson, or proceed with Handouts #1-3 & 4 and discussion above.

Suggested questions for pre-learning or culminating activity include:

  • What motivated the rise of a black press in the United States
  • Did its existence alter the racial history of this country
  • What would it be like to live in a country without a free press?
  • Is a black press still necessary today?
  • What about media to serve other ethnic groups/women/religions? Are they necessary?
  • Do news media outlets depict racial minority groups/women/religious groups fairly or stereotypically? What stereotypes about your group bother you?
  • Does the media cover your community or group well? What about the subjects that interest you, for example, hip-hop, fashion or football
  • Have you or anyone you know been the subject of a news story? Were you/they treated fairly? Have you ever disagreed with something you saw in the paper or on television, or been angry about the way someone was described?
  • Do you read a daily newspaper? Do you get any specialized papers or magazines at home pertaining to your race, ethnicity or religion? Other special interests, like music or computers?
  • Do you think you would like to work in the media? If so, doing what?

Additional discussion or writing ideas:

  1. Using copies of the newspapers and other publications you have gathered, ask students to point out some of the topics covered. Ask them if those stories would be found in other publications? Should people who don’t read those publications now know about those stories? Who advertises in them?
  2. If time permits, discuss the media today, and the role that ethics and race may have played in the recent journalism scandals:
  3. Consider having students draw up a plan for a newspaper, magazine, news video, multimedia PowerPoint presentation or Web site on a specific interest, for example, a music-oriented publication aimed at people their age. What would some of the stories be? Who would they interview? Who would be on the cover? What companies or types of companies should advertise in it? One resource is a Web site created by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to help schools start and maintain newspapers and Web sites.
  4. Invite a representative of the black press or an editor of a special-interest publication to speak, or assign students to interview a journalist from a minority group, a different culture or special-interest publication, for example, a newspaper for suburban mothers, a Web site for Jewish singles, or a Korean-language magazine. (Why is their publication needed? Who are the customers? Who advertises in it?)

About the Author 

Angela P. Dodson is executive editor of Black Issues Book Review, a national magazine covering literature for African American readers. She frequently teaches as an adjunct instructor for Mercer County [NJ] Community College, and is host of a radio program about black Roman Catholics, “Black Catholics, Yes!” Angela is a graduate of Marshall University. She has a master’s degree in journalism and public affairs from the American University of Washington, DC She has worked in newspapers for 25 years and was previously a senior editor and Style editor for the New York Times.

Angela has also taught workshops on writing and editing for many organizations including the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Press Institute and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the MIJE Editing Program and various colleges.

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    Relevant National Standards:
    • Standard 9: Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional democracy
    • Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society
    • Standard 19: Understands what is meant by “the public agenda,” how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media
    • United States History
    • Standard 12. Understands the sources and character of cultural, religious, and social reform movements in the antebellum period
    • Standard 29. Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties
    • Standard 31. Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States
    • Language Arts
    • Standard 31. Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States media

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