The History of African-American Newspapers
Updated: Feb 14
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As a young man pondering the what-ifs and possibilities in life, I received an early vision of clarity. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a writer. While on active duty and stationed in Germany, I had the unique experience of breaking bread with people from many different cultures. Some were soldiers (not U.S. Troops), and some were local citizens. One overriding and dynamic concept became very clear. We all put our pants on one leg at a time, and we all eat breakfast in the morning. Diversity is different individuals valuing each other regardless of skin color, intellect, talent, or years of age. Inclusion means an invite to the party, and you've been asked to dance.
Being African-American and having a freshly minted degree in journalism, I pondered the African-American newspaper's role in our community. The part of the African American newspapers is synonymous with that of the African American church. Both play vital roles in the African American community at large. An internet search gives an ample account of the beginnings of the African-American newspaper industry. Historically, African-American newspapers came into existence before the Civil War as a medium of abolitionist sentiment expression. In 1827, Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm started the first African-American periodical, called Freedom's Journal.
Most of the early African-American publications, such as Freedom's Journal, were published in the North and then distributed, often covertly, to African Americans throughout the country. By the 20th century, daily papers appeared in Norfolk, Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.
Some notable black newspapers of the 19th century were Freedom's Journal (1827–29), Philip Alexander Bell's Colored American (1837–41), the North Star (1847–60), the National Era, The Frederick Douglass Paper (1851–63), the Douglass Monthly (1859–63), The Christian Recorder (1861–1902), and Daniel Rudd's Ohio Tribune (later renamed to American Catholic Tribune, 1885-1897).
In 1885, Daniel Rudd formed the Ohio Tribune, said to be the first newspaper "printed by and for Black Americans," the Ohio Tribune—which he later expanded into the American Catholic Tribune, purported to the first Black-owned national newspaper.
"The American Freedman" was a New York-based paper that served as an outlet to inspire African Americans to use the Reconstruction period as a time for social and political advancement. This newspaper did so by publishing articles that reference African-American mobilization during the Reconstruction period that had local support and gained support from the global community.
Many African-American newspapers struggled to keep their circulation going due to the low literacy rate among African Americans. Many freed African Americans had low incomes and could not afford to purchase subscriptions but shared the publications.
The national Afro-American Press Association was formed in 1890 in Indianapolis.
African-American newspapers flourished in the major cities, with publishers playing a significant role in politics and business affairs. Representative leaders included Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870–1940) and John H. Sengstacke (1912–1997), publishers of the Chicago Defender; John Mitchell, Jr. (1863–1929), editor of the Richmond Planet and president of the National Afro-American Press Association; Anthony Overton (1865–1946), publisher of the Chicago Bee, Garth C. Reeves, Sr. (1919-2019), Publisher Emeritus of the Miami Times and Robert Lee Vann (1879–1940), the publisher and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. In the 1940s, the number of newspapers grew from 150 to 250.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Black southern press both aided and, to an extent, hindered the equal payment movement of Black teachers in the south of the United States. Newspaper coverage of their campaign served to publicize the cause. How the movement was portrayed, and those whose struggles were highlighted in the press, displaced Black women to the background of a campaign they spearheaded. A woman's issue, and a Black woman's issue, was being covered by the press. However, reporting diminished the roles of the women fighting for teacher salary equalization and "diminished the presence of the teachers' salary equalization fight" in national debates over equality in education.
The national, Chicago-based Associated Negro Press (1919–1964) was a news agency "with correspondents and stringers in all major centers of the black population."
There were many specialized black publications, such as those of Marcus Garvey and John H. Johnson. These men broke a wall that let black people into society. The Roanoke Tribune was founded in 1939 by Fleming Alexander and recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder is Minnesota's oldest black newspaper and the United States' oldest ongoing minority publication, second only to The Jewish World.
Unfortunately, many African-American newspapers that began publishing in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s went out of business because they could not attract enough advertising. They were also victims of their own substantial efforts to eradicate racism and promote civil rights. As of 2002, about 200 Black newspapers remained. With the decline of print media and the proliferation of internet access, more black news websites emerged, most notably Black Voice News, The Grio, The Root, and Black Voices.
After the abolishment of slavery, African-Americans migrated from fields to urban communities. Nearly every large city with a significant African-American population soon had African-American newspapers. Examples were the Chicago Defender, Detroit Tribune, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the (New York) Amsterdam News. While it was undoubtedly crucial for African-American newspapers to report the day's news, it was not their primary purpose. Most cities already had daily newspapers that were aimed toward the general public. The idea of an African-American newspaper was to give African-Americans the news through the lens of their own eyes.
From an economic perspective, African-American newspapers were formed to make a profit. According to a study of early African-American newspapers, African-American newspaper proprietors' "primary motivation" was "not uplift, but profit." Besides, from a social standpoint, these newspapers were a source of pride for the African-American community and a focal point for African-Americans to stick together and fight the constant oppression they were under. Considering this, it seems apparent that it was most beneficial for African-American newspaper editors to be motivated by both uplift and profit.
As important as it is for African-American newspapers to adopt a community concept, community business owners must embrace the ideas of community, inclusion, and business diversity, too. “Diversity is our business” is our motto at The Chronicle News. As a newspaper, we are tasked with truth, honesty, and the knowledge that freedom of speech embodies the ideals we all hold dear as the last defense line. As a newspaper, we keep the community informed, up-to-date, and occasionally we blow the whistle. In short, we are the voice, heartbeat, and soul of the city.
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America.”
—President Barrack Obama DNC 2004
As the community's voice, it’s essential to realize that diversity and inclusion first start at home. I am reminded of a time some years ago when I boarded a plane for a business trip. At some point in time, before the flight took off, we were greeted by the pilot. She greeted us with a deep smile in her voice and assured us that we would have a good flight. I thought to myself, wow, a female pilot. I thought no more about it at the time. Later in the flight, there was some turbulence. The first thought in my mind at that point was, "I hope she can handle this." I must admit, if the pilot were a man, that thought would not have occurred to me at that moment. It turns out that she was and is a great pilot. Gender had nothing to do with it.
Our community is made up of people from all walks of life. They bring to the table a multitude of cultural and life experiences. To every business owner who reads this—I issue a call to arms. Embrace the community, diversity, and inclusion!