February 1, 2012

Up From Slavery: The Black Press

2012 marks the notable anniversaries of two groundbreaking newspapers in the black press and American journalism: Freedom’s Journal and The North Star.

On March 16, 1827, Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm — two black men born free — founded Freedom’s Journal in New York City. Its goal was to counter New York newspapers that ridiculed African Americans and promoted slavery. Its motto: “Righteousness exalteth a nation.”

For the first time in history, an American newspaper was owned and published by blacks.

Freedom’s Journal became the benchmark for an influential and deeply personal black press that helped unite African Americans by giving them a voice, community self-awareness and a prominent role in a changing world.

In the inaugural edition Cornish, a Presbyterian minister, and Russwurm, a member of the Haytian Emigration Society and the second African American to graduate from a U.S. college, laid out their mission in words that spoke for many minority publishers.

“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.”

Freedom’s Journal vowed to speak out in “thunder tones” until whites and blacks were viewed equally. The newspaper was the first of 40 African-American newspapers from 1827 to 1865 to call for slavery’s end. Its influence was so widespread that it was barred from the South.

A dispute between Cornish and Russwurm killed Freedom’s Journal in 1829. Russwurm believed blacks should return to Africa; he emigrated to Liberia in 1828 where he edited the Liberia Herald and worked as a government official.

Cornish founded The Colored American, where he continued to campaign against slavery. Without newspapers “by and with us,” he said, “we cannot live in America.”

Twenty years later on Nov. 1, 1847, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who lectured widely about the evils of slavery, founded The North Star in Rochester, N.Y. The crusading weekly also advocated for women’s rights. Its motto: “Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.”

The North Star was named after a popular ballad sung by runaway slaves. Few African Americans could read during this time, but many knew freedom songs such as “The North Star” by heart, which gave slaves directions to the free northern states: Follow the drinking gourd and the North Star. The newspaper, along with Douglass’s powerful writing, had worldwide appeal.

“Justice must be done, the truth must be told. I will not be silent,” he said about the paper’s founding.

Douglass also published Frederick Douglass’ Weekly, Douglass’ Monthly, and New National Era, all with funds from British supporters. He kept fighting slavery and racial discrimination even after racists burned his house and newspapers.

The North Star was later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper and appeared until 1860.

An 1848 issue of The North Star is currently displayed in the News Corporation News History Gallery. The four-page edition of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, published May 25, 1860, is also in the Newseum’s collection of historic newspapers.

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