||The American black press has
always undertaken great tasks. In addition to reporting events, these papers have served as community leaders,
voicing issues and circulating new ideas. America's first African-American newspaper, published from 1827 to 1829
in New York City, began this tradition:
Freedom's Journal provided international, national, and regional information on current events and contained
editorials declaiming slavery, lynching, and other injustices. The Journal also published biographies of prominent
African-Americans and listings of births, deaths, and marriages in the African-American New York community. Freedom's
Journal circulated in 11 states, the District of Columbia, Haiti, Europe, and Canada.
|The wide geographic scope of this paper, both in its coverage and in its distribution,
set the standard for the future of the black media. Because the community extended around the nation and even overseas,
the papers seldom just covered local news.
Charles Simmons notes that Freedom's Journal also set the standard for the philosophy
behind a black newspaper. "The
|goals of all editors were to deliver messages in unity to their readers, deliver them
with passion and emotion, and let white editors and citizens know that black citizens were humans who were being
|Frederick Douglass edited a paper, begun in 1847, called the North Star. Douglass
explained the mission of his paper: "The object of the North Star will be to attack slavery in all
its forms and aspects, advocate Universal Emancipation; exact the standard of public morality; promote the moral
and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and to hasten the day of freedom to our three million enslaved
fellow countrymen" (Simmons 13).
Two of the biggest papers began around the turn
of the century. In 1905, Robert Abbott
founded the Chicago Defender, followed two years later by the Pittsburgh Courier,
later led to prominence by Robert
Vann. These two papers, along with The Baltimore
Afro-American and The New York Age, were the largest and most
influential black newspapers. By 1919, enough newspapers existed for Claude
Barnett to found The Associated Negro Press.
Charles Simmons provides a useful framework for understanding how the missions of the black press changed over
Our research focuses on the highlighted eras.
|Civil War and Reconstruction
-Create sense of a national black identity
|From 1877 to 1915
|From 1915 to 1928
||-Aid Great Migration by providing job notices and information on housing and transportation
-Inform how migrants and family at home are doing
|During the Depression and Pre-World War II
||Tackle issues of violence and employment
|During World War II
||Win equality for black soldiers
Frederick Douglass used his newspaper to urge northern black men to join the Union Army.
Decades later, The Chicago Whip told blacks, "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work." Started in 1929,
this campaign eventually spread to all the major black newspapers of the country. One of the most famous instances
of newspapers' community activism was the Courier's Double V campaign. Starting in February 1932, the Courier
linked victory in Europe with a victory for American blacks at home. The paper encouraged blacks to fight for their
rights on the homefront as well as for American victory in Europe.
|Black newspapers were the voices
for their communities,
often initiating and leading campaigns. For instance, Mary Ann Shadd
Cary's paper, launched in 1852, responded to the Fugitive Slave Law
by encouraging blacks to emigrate to Canada. Shadd was the first black
woman to edit a newspaper in North America.
|By 1936, black newspapers had a combined circulation of 315,000. The Defender alone
reached 82,000 people. Although most whites were unaware of the black press,
|the black community cherished its papers as something that brought them together,
brought them news, and spoke up for their rights.
|The larger papers, such as the Courier and the Defender, had many subscribers
nationwide. The papers circulated all around the country and often addressed issues germane to the American black
community as a whole. This story of the Defender typifies the problems a large-scale black newspaper faced:
The paper was smuggled into the south because white distributors refused to circulate
The Defender and many groups such as the Klu Klux Klan tried to confiscate it or threatened its readers.
The Defender was passed from person to person, and read aloud in barbershops and churches. It is estimated
that at its height each paper sold was read by four to five African Americans, putting its readership at over 500,000
people each week.
However, black communities managed to counter these problems. People who were literate
read the paper out loud to a gathered group, and papers found ways around the lack of advertising dollars.
|That each paper was read by four or five different people points to one of the impediments
to a high readership:
|the literacy level in the black
community was low.In addition, most of a paper's readership was poor,
which meant advertising
money was scarce.
Black papers still thrive today, filling much
the same missions as their predecessors. Many involved with the black
press, such as Frank
Bolden and Al
Dixon, believe that these papers
are critical to the black community, and that mainstream newspapers can
never take their places.