Magazines and Newspapers, African American

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MAGAZINES AND NEWSPAPERS, AFRICAN AMERICAN. The first black newspaper in the United States, Freedom's Journal, was established in 1827 by John Russwurm, the first African American to graduate from a university, Bowdoin in Maine, and Samuel Cornish, a militant clergyman in New York City. In the first issue, dated 16 March, the youthful editors boldly stated their objectives: "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentation in things which concern us dearly." Their manifesto captured the spirit and mission of thousands of black newspapers that followed. The editors were in part reacting to the racist propaganda put forth by the white journals of the period. Later, other black newspapers also assumed a corrective and assertive role.

Popular Press

The viability of Freedom's Journal and the other papers launched in the mid-nineteenth century was compromised by the relatively small black population that could financially support newspapers in the North and by substantive intragroup differences over issues like emigration to Africa and the merits of violence in the struggle against southern slavery. In 1828, Russwurm resigned, having abandoned his hopes for freedom in the United States, and he channeled his energy into the African emigration cause. The next year Freedom's Journal folded.

The noted black abolitionist Frederick Douglass launched the North Star in Rochester, New York, in 1847. In his editorials Douglass carefully distanced himself from Oswald Garrison, his former mentor, who grounded his antislavery crusade in moralism. Douglass, like many other black abolitionists, was skeptical about the effectiveness of moral appeals and retained hope in the U.S. Constitution as a lever for abolition. Despite attracting only a small number of black subscribers, the North Star (renamed Frederick Douglass' Monthly in 1851) survived until 1861, largely through the contributions of white patrons in the abolitionist movement.

While slavery, African emigration, and racist practices in the North dominated the thinking of blacks, several persons recognized the need for outlets that featured creative work as well as political material. The Anglo-African Magazine, founded in 1859 by Thomas Hamilton, offered readers poems, essays, and creative writing along with stirring political pieces by writers like Martin Delaney and John Langston.

After the Civil War, Reconstruction policies and the optimism and rhetoric that accompanied them spawned dozens of black newspapers across the country. However, the hopeful mood could not offset the economics of publishing. For most free blacks toiling for basic essentials, newspaper subscriptions were out of the question financially. White newspapers depended on commercial advertising for operating revenue, but embryonic black business enterprises were in no position to invest resources in advertising. By the 1890s a majority of these early publications had closed down.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, blacks continued their migration to northern cities, where discriminatory laws and custom patterns limited them to segregated enclaves. As the African American population embraced self-help strategies, the need for newspapers to educate and communicate was apparent. Literally every city harbored a black newspaper. Among the more stable and influential papers were Robert Abbott's Chicago Defender (1905), William Monroe Trotter's Boston Guardian (1901), and T. Thomas Fortune's New York Age (1887). The activist Ida Wells (who later married and became Ida Wells-Barnett) coedited Free Speech in Memphis. The tension between her militant views and the southern political climate peaked in 1892, when gangsters vandalized the offices of Free Speech. Fearful for her safety, Wells moved to New York and continued to write some of the most forceful antilynching journalism of the era.

The influential black leader Booker T. Washington recognized the growing influence of black papers and adroitly dangled financial assistance to those who supported his political views. Washington's manipulation of organs like the Colored American infuriated W. E. B. Du Bois, whose views challenged Washington's conservative outlook. However, Du Bois could offer none of the largesse available to editors who endorsed Washington's accommodationist politics. Despite Washington's manipulation of the black press, three magazines emerged that rekindled the protest traditions of the nineteenth-century papers. Du Bois's Crisis (1910), Charles S. Johnson's Opportunity (1923), and A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen's Messenger (1917) profoundly shaped the thinking of their black readers. All three magazines included political and nonpolitical works, and each was subsidized by an organization—the Messenger by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Crisis by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Opportunity by the Urban League. Girded by institutional backing, all three magazines enjoyed a longer publishing life than any of the earlier magazines.

Claude Barnett, a journalist with the Chicago Defender, recognized the need for an agency to serve the black press and started the Associated Negro Press (ANP) service in 1919. In addition to collecting and distributing news about black Americans, Barnett traveled to Africa and set up an informal network of correspondents to funnel news about the continent to African and black domestic outlets. The highest number of domestic subscribers in one year was 112 in 1945. In 1964 more than two hundred papers in Africa had signed up with the ANP. Unable to compete with the resources marshaled by the major news services, the agency closed in 1964.

Scholarly Journals

Serious historical scholarship about blacks found an outlet when Carter G. Woodson, a Washington, D.C., teacher, established the Journal of Negro History (JNH) in 1916. The journal was affiliated with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization Woodson and several other black educators had created to promote interest in and knowledge about black history. The Harvard-trained Woodson insisted on rigorous scholarship, and the pages of JNH were open to all able contributors. Remarkably, Woodson managed to publish JNH regularly despite often-contentious relationships with sponsoring foundations and donors. JNH survived into the twenty-first century but appeared irregularly.

Three other important scholarly journals were initiated by blacks during the first half of the century, and all enjoyed success. The Journal of Negro Education founded by Charles Thompson at Howard University focused on education and social conditions and featured the work of scholars like Horace Mann Bond, E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche. The university-subsidized publication remained viable in the twenty-first century and enjoyed a fine reputation in scholarly circles. Phylon and the College Language Association Journal (CLA Journal) appeared in 1940 and 1957, respectively. Phylon, with links to Atlanta University, concentrated on the social sciences, while the CLA Journal published literary criticism. Both helped fill significant gaps in American scholarship.

A National Focus

Through the first half of the twentieth century, nationally focused papers like the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, and the Chicago Defender effectively exposed racial injustice and offered news of special interest to the black community. The Defender in particular was a consistent advocate of southern black migration to the North from 1917 to 1923. Several decades later the black press successfully fended off attempts by President Franklin Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover to use wartime sedition powers to suppress their publication during World War II. Long before white papers discovered the civil rights and black power movements, the black press was gathering and distributing information about the trends.

The legal and political victories of the 1960s civil rights struggles had paradoxical implications for the black press. As more blacks made their way into the American mainstream, the need for an ethnically focused fourth estate came into question. Talented black editors and reporters were hired by white papers, and many thrived in the new environment. Circulation figures for the traditionally black dailies and weeklies dwindled, and few were viable into the twenty-first century. With a circulation of 600,000 in the 1960s, Muhammad Speaks, published by the Nation of Islam, reigned as the most widely read black newspaper. The Black Scholar, another independent quarterly, was founded in 1969 and in the twenty-first century continued to publish research and commentary on black studies.

Several general-interest magazines, like Jet and Ebony, founded in Chicago by John L. Johnson in the 1950s, survived into the twenty-first century and served the mass market for black society and entertainment items. Specialty magazines like Essence (1970), directed toward black women readers, and Black Enterprise, a monthly on black businesses, successfully reached the growing market of young urban Americans.


Banks, William M. Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life. New York: Norton, 1996.

Dann, Martin E., ed. The Black Press 1827–1890: The Quest for National Identity. New York: Putnam, 1971.

Johnson, Abby Arthur, and Ronald Mayberry Johnson. Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of Afro-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

Pride, Armistead S., and Clint C. Wilson II. A History of the Black Press. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

Washburn, Patrick S. A Question of Sedition: The Federal Government's Investigation of the Black Press during World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Wolseley, Roland E. The Black Press, U.S.A. 2d ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989.

William M.Banks

See alsoAfrican Americans ; Literature: African American Literature ; Newspapers ; Publishing Industry .

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