Creating Political Authority: The Role of the Antebellum Black Press in the Political Mobilization and Empowerment of African Americans

Article excerpt

From its beginnings in the 1820s, African-American newspapers have always been a strong and vocal ally for the rights of blacks throughout the United States. This article delineates how and why these papers from the mid-1830s to the Civil War became important as platforms of political agency for those who were denied conventional means of political participation in the government. In particular, this study focuses on four avenues through which the newspapers were utilized to afford political agency to Africans Americans: the material and rhetorical support of black suffrage; the promotion and facilitation of public protest; the promotion of material and moral elevation; and the creation and promotion of a black national and historical identity. The success of the black press in these areas set a precedent for all subsequent African-American political struggles.

By the beginning of the Civil War, African-American newspapers had become an indispensable ally for African Americans in their struggle for equal rights throughout the United States with at least thirty-eight of these papers printed and distributed throughout the nation and beyond.1 As self-proclaimed reformers, the African-American writers, publishers, and editors of the antebellum black press became the leaders of political mobilization efforts that cut across class, age, and gender, simultaneously fighting against slavery and the social and legal degradation of free blacks everywhere.2 Thus, the founders of the black press created newspapers both of and for black Americans, which were instrumental in black identity formation and in defense of the fundamental rights of African-descended people everywhere.

This study delineates how and why the antebellum African-American papers of the mid-nineteenth century became important as platforms of political agency, intended for those who were largely denied conventional means of participation within the United States government. The time period begins in the mid- 1830s, during a time of expanding public participation in politics, and ends on the eve of the Civil War.3 As defined by many of the newspapers, the dual purpose of the antebellum black press was the elevation of free blacks and the emancipation of slaves. A legal form of bondage, slavery would by definition require legislative change to be eliminated. During a period when both legal and extra-legal discrimination against free African Americans was extreme, legislation was needed to protect any gains that might be made towards the betterment of free blacks. Beginning in the 1830s, when political action became increasingly significant in the lives of many white Americans, African-American newspapers stepped up to fill the void for blacks, who were denied true citizenship and equal political opportunity.

The importance of antebellum black newspapers has been thoroughly documented by a number of historians of the early black press. In addition to serving an essential role in the abolitionist movement, these papers strove to give a public voice to blacks, to alleviate prejudice in American society, and to generally improve the condition of African Americans throughout the nation.4 Moreover, as this study demonstrates, the antebellum black press was fundamental in the political mobilization and empowerment of African Americans at both the community and national levels.

While many authors have alluded to the political significance of the press, no concise treatment of the role of the black press in the political agency of African Americans has been written. Beyond this, this research provides a poignant example of how African Americans took an active role in their own liberation in the years before the Civil War. Despite divisions within black society based on gender, class, and location, many African Americans in the antebellum period understood that the gravity of their situation would require a unified response. At different levels, the efforts of the leaders of the black press and the agents, subscribers, and readers worked in concert to create a liticai protest that would form the basis of black radical action for generations. …