Russwurm, John Brown

views updated May 23 2018

Russwurm, John Brown

October 1, 1799
June 9, 1851

Abolitionist and Liberian government official John Brown Russwurm was born in Jamaica of an unknown slave mother and a white American merchant father, John Russwurm. After eight years as a free black in Jamaica, young John Brown, as he was then known, was sent by his father to Quebec for formal schooling. His father brought the child to Portland, Maine, in 1812 when he married Susan Blanchard, who insisted that John Russwurm acknowledge his son's paternity by name. After the death of John Russwurm Sr. in 1815, John Brown Russwurm stayed with Blanchard until he entered Hebron Academy in Hebron, Maine. Later he attended and graduated (in 1826) from Bowdoin College, becoming one of the first black university graduates in the United States. In his graduation speech, Russwurm praised the Republic of Haiti and encouraged American blacks to consider settling there.

Russwurm moved to New York City in 1827 and helped found Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper. The paper employed itinerant abolitionist blacks to publicize the antislavery cause and gain subscribers across the country and in Europe. Freedom's Journal demanded an end to southern slavery and equal rights for blacks in the North. After Samuel Cornish resigned as coeditor on September 14, 1827, to return to the Presbyterian ministry, Russwurm continued to publish the paper until February 1829. Despairing of any hope for an African-American future in the United States, he resigned to take a post in Liberia, scandalizing black New York. Generally condemned by his contemporaries, Russwurm in fact anticipated the Pan-Africanism of Alexander Crummell, Henry Highland Garnet, and Edward Blyden twenty years later.

Arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, in November 1829, Russwurm quickly gained prominence. He edited the Liberia Herald from 1830 to 1835, when he resigned in protest over the American Colonization Society's attempts to control the newspaper. At the same time he was superintendent of education for Monrovia. Despite his differences with the colonization society, Russwurm served as its agent, recruiting American blacks to migrate to Africa. He became fluent in several African languages.

In 1836 Russwurm became the first black governor of the Maryland sections of Liberia. He was an able administrator and successfully established relations with nearby African nations, encouraged arriving African Americans, and worked diplomatically with whites. His administration supported agriculture and trade, and in 1843 completed a census of the colony. Throughout the 1840s, Russwurm negotiated for absorption of the Maryland colony into Liberia. He died, a distinguished leader, on June 9, 1851, five years before that union became a reality. A monument was erected to his memory near his burial place in Harper, Cape Palmas, Liberia. Russwurm Island, off Cape Palmas, is named for him. His shift in favor of colonization offended many in 1829, but he is now remembered as a significant and successful Pan-Africanist.

See also Abolition; Cornish, Samuel E.; Pan-Africanism


Brewer, William M. "John Brown Russwurm." Journal of Negro History (1928): 413422.

Shick, Tom W. Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settler Society in Nineteenth Century Liberia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, pp. 2023.

Smith, James Wesley. Sojourners in Search of Freedom: The Settlement of Liberia by Black Americans. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.

graham russell hodges (1996)

John Brown Russwurm

views updated May 23 2018

John Brown Russwurm

John Brown Russwurm (1799-1851), African American and Liberian journalist, educator, and governor, was co-editor of the first African American newspaper. After he emigrated to Africa, he became governor of Maryland-in-Liberia.

John Russwurm was born on Oct. 1, 1799, in Jamaica, British West Indies, of a Creole woman and a white American father. When his father returned to the United States in 1807, the boy was sent to Canada for schooling. His father's new wife brought John to their Maine home and insisted that he be fully educated. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1826, one of the first two blacks to graduate from any college.

Russwurm declined a position in Liberia and in 1827 joined Samuel Cornish, another free black, to edit Freedom's Journal, the first newspaper published by and for blacks. At first, following Cornish's lead and in line with the opinions of most articulate free blacks, the paper opposed the American Colonization Society (ACS), sponsor of Liberia as a home for blacks. When Cornish left, Russwurm began shifting editorial policy concerning emigration. In February 1829 he announced support for colonization; antagonistic black subscribers let the newspaper die and heaped verbal abuse on Russwurm. By the end of the year he had settled in Liberia.

In 1830 Russwurm became superintendent of schools, and he also edited the Liberia Herald. Elected to office by the Liberian settlers, he served as secretary of the colony until ACS officials in the United States dismissed him in 1836. Angered by this refusal to let black men govern themselves, he left Monrovia and became governor of Maryland-in-Liberia, the African settlement sponsored by the Maryland Colonization Society.

Russwurm governed the colony from 1836 until 1851, ruling wisely although with a strong hand. He enabled the colony to survive by keeping peace with surrounding Africans. He found remedies for problems of finance, trade, agriculture, justice, representative government, and relations with American supporters of the colony. After Liberia became an independent republic in 1847, Russwurm worked to unite the two settlements, but differences between the settlers and between their two supporting societies in the United States prevented unification until after his death.

Russwurm was a man of administrative ability and intellectual accomplishment. He had a proud sense of destiny for the African race, maintaining that they were equals of all men and should govern themselves. He left a clear mark on African American history. Like other black nationalists, he despaired of gaining equality in the United States and rejected that nation for Africa. He died on June 17, 1851.

Further Reading

Mary Sagarin, John Brown Russwurm (1970), is a full, carefully researched biography. Accounts of Russwurm's Liberian career are in John H. B. Latrobe, Maryland in Liberia (1885), and Charles H. Huberich, The Political and Legislative History of Liberia (2 vols., 1947). His early life is briefly described in Nehemiah Cleaveland, History of Bowdoin College, edited by Alpheus Spring Packard (1882). Background on the attitudes of free blacks concerning emigration to Africa is in Howard Holman Bell, A Survey of the Negro Convention Movement, 1830-1861 (1953; repr. 1969). □

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