President Joe Biden, at the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 29, hailed the work of the Black Press, singling out Ida B. Wells who waged a courageous campaign against lynching. The featured comedian Roy Wood Jr. agreed.
Indeed, the African American press has a glorious tradition as a champion for racial equality in the face of daunting odds. Its history dates back nearly 200 years when John Russwurm and Samuel Eli Cornish started publishing Freedom’s Journal in New York on March 16, 1827. They proclaimed on the front page: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
That declaration became the motto of hundreds of newspapers. Freedom’s Journal lasted just two years but it paved the way for African American journalism. By 1861, African Americans were publishing more than 40 newspapers. They included The North Star, the ﬁrst anti-slavery newspaper which Frederick Douglass founded on Dec. 3, 1847. He named it after the Polaris star that helped guide slaves escaping to the North.
Library of Congress blogger Malea Walker, in a July 30, 2020, post, noted an article in the June 23, 1848, issue of The North Star with the heading, “Revolution of the Spindles: For the Overthrow of American Slavery.” The unidentiﬁed writer stated, “Little dreamed the ingenious Eli Whitney, when riveting the teeth on his admirable invention, the cotton gin, that he was at the same time riveting the fetters on the slave and the foulest of institutions on the framework of American society.”
That story included statistics which, Walker wrote, “correlated the cotton trade with the slave population, demonstrating the steady rise in cotton exports from 189,316 pounds in 1790 to 1,250,500,000 pounds in 1846, at the same time that the slave population rose from 657,437 in 1790 to 3,000,000 in 1846.”
Wells, born into slavery in Mississippi and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, co-owned and wrote for the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, documenting lynching across the country in the 1890s. She researched claims that many instances of lynching were attributed to "rape of White women," a Wikipedia entry says, and she “concluded that Southerners cried rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynchings: Black economic progress, which threatened White Southerners with competition, and White ideas of enforcing Black second-class status in the society.” Wells’ work so angered European Americans that she took to carrying a pistol – or two – under her blouse.
On June 4, 1892, while Wells was in New York on her ﬁrst trip north, a lynch mob destroyed her printing press. She stayed in New York, working for The New York Age newspaper for 30 years and died at 68 of kidney disease in Chicago on March 25, 1931. Nearly 90 years later, she was posthumously honored with a Pulitzer Prize special citation "for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horriﬁc and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching." It took The News York Times 87 years to publish her obituary, on March 8, 2018, in a series marking International Women’s Day titled, ironically, “Overlooked.”
Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, more than 500 African American newspapers began publication. Their stories and others that followed were told in the PBS documentary, “The Black Press:
Soldiers Without Swords,” which aired on Feb. 8, 1999. A copy of the transcript is available online. Many of the papers quickly went out of business but, in 1910 alone, more than 275 existed, with a combined circulation of more than 500,000.
There have been other notable African American publishers, including Charlotta Spears Bass, who took over the California Eagle on the death of its founder, John J. Neimore. She led the paper for 40 years, eventually selling it, and, at age 71, she entered politics, becoming the ﬁrst African American woman to run for national ofﬁce as the Progressive Party’s candidate for vice president.
Robert S. Abbott founded The Chicago Defender on March 4, 1905, selling the 300 copies from his ﬁrst press run himself and, by 1920, pushed the circulation to more than 100,000. Like Wells, Abbott used his newspaper to denounce lynching, in addition to encouraging people to move north, a campaign that helped send more than a million African Americans out of the South in the 1920s.
Notably, the African American press criticized the two world wars, pointing out that African American men were being sent to ﬁght and die overseas for democracy which they did not have at home. Acting on a suggestion by James Thompson, a Wichita, Kansas, cafeteria worker, The Pittsburg Courier launched the Double V campaign: “The ﬁrst V for victory over our enemies from without. The second V for victory over our enemies from within." FBI director J. Edgar Hoover pressed for indictment of some publishers for treason but John Sengstacke, who became publisher of The Chicago Defender after the death of Abbott, his uncle, dissuaded Attorney General Francis Biddle against such a step, pointing out that the newspapers were just reporting the facts.
As to the state of the African American press, the late Evelyn Cunningham, who covered the early days of the Civil Rights Movement as editor and a reporter with the Pittsburgh Courier and served as an aide to Nelson Rockefeller, put it this way in the PBS documentary: “The black press today seems to react only, react to a – an issue or a situation or react to something that’s in the white press. We very rarely, in our black press today initiate, dig up stories or our own. And I think we do need a black press today, very, very much so. We have no voice that tells us about our own lives.”
The late Phyllis "Phyl" T. Garland, an academic and journalist who became the ﬁrst African American and ﬁrst female member of faculty to earn tenure at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism added in the documentary, “Without this network of communication, it has been far more difﬁcult for African American people to comprehend fully what is happening to them, to be able to have a debate on issues among themselves, and also to develop and to choose their own leaders.”
The lament of Cunningham and Garland could be a mandate for the African American press today, nearly a quarter-century after the airing of the PBS documentary that deemed African American journalists “Soldiers Without Swords.” Each generation of African American publishers has had to confront the issues of the day, whether lynching, world war, civil rights, voter suppression or police brutality. Some of those issues still persist but this generation’s call is to speak truth to power against a determined effort to erase African American history, the resurgence of White nationalism and elimination of initiatives to create an inclusive nation. They have to confront distortion of terms such as “woke” and “critical race theory” and legislation banning the efforts of corporations to adopt Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) policies and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in colleges.
But, as in the past, there has to be a symbiotic relationship between the press and the community. While the newspapers are called to a much stronger activism, so too the community is called to support them, including with advertisements and subscriptions and, perhaps, every household purchasing a paper every week. There are 15 million African American households and such support would go far to aid publishers. It is pretty certain that, for example, South Florida publications – The Miami Times, The South Florida Times and The Westside Gazette can use the help.
This is a good time for such matters to be considered as the National Newspaper Publishers Association gets ready to hold its annual Convention and Leadership Awards Reception on June 28-July 1 in Nashville.