Black Images from the Past: Attitudes Presented in the Long Island Star and the New York Evening Post in the Early 1820s

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Black Images From The Past: Attitudes Presented In The Long Island Star And The New York Evening Post In The Early 1820s

As Americans entered the nineteenth century, they began to rely on magazines as an important vehicle for communicating information on various contemporary issues. The number of magazines had grown from five in 1794 to almost one hundred by 1825.(1) Poetry, traveler's accounts, letters, short stories and excerpts from novels enlivened their contents, served to keep patrons abreast of recent events, and influenced American attitudes and ideas.(2) Issues surrounding the black race was of interest to citizens of the North and South. News, opinions and commentary on their place in American society often found an outlet in the columns of magazines. Slavery for example, intrigued the readership and magazines printed news of the slave trade in Africa and the West Indies but made little reference to its impact in America.(3) This can in part be attributed to the practice of these journals reprinting stories extracted from foreign publications. As newspapers gained in popularity, they too published news taken from sources near to the origin of the event.(4)

Newspapers by the end of the eighteenth century were reaching a broader audience than magazines. In 1793 Noah Webster claimed that "newspapers are the most easily sought after" means of knowledge.(5) The treatment of blacks by the press was determined by the political bent of the newspapers. Differences in the presentation of issues relating to African-Americans in rural newspapers and those in the urban press were quite discernible. In the early 1820s the New York Evening Post, an example of a metropolitan daily, and the Long Is land Star, a rural publication, illustrated how the political bias of the press influenced the characterization of blacks.

In 1801, Alexander Hamilton, with a few political allies began the publication of the New York Evening Post. It was born as a reaction to the elections that year in which the Federalists lost the New York Governorship, the Legislature and the Council of Appointment to the Democratic Party of President Thomas Jefferson. With this new organ in which to disseminate political thought, the Federalists were able to react to articles published in journals such as the American Citizen, which praised Jeffersonian political beliefs.

The purpose and goals of the New York Evening Post were stated in the prospectus.

The design of this paper is to diffuse among the people correct information on all interesting subjects, to inculcate just principles in religion, morals, and politics; and to cultivate a taste for sound literature.(6)

True to the ideals of the Federalists, who for the most part favored the abolition of slavery, the original prospectus reflects an interest in the "rights of man." The Gradual Manumission Act of 1799, supported by the Federalists, provided for the extinction of slavery in New York by 1827. Consequently, there was a new reason to report on the contemporary conditions of African-Americans.(7)

Slavery, by the end of the eighteenth century was well established in New York City and its environs; African-Americans constituted almost one fourth of the total population. In Kings County (Brooklyn) 58.8 percent of white households owned slaves in 1790 -- a surprisingly large number. Even in parts of western Long Island slavery was relied upon for the labor needed to supply New York with its food.(8) Consequently, the institution of slavery as well as its enslaved victims were of increasing interest to the white populace.

American news traveled slowly at the turn of the nineteenth century. Mail service was in its infancy and transportation was still primitive. The historian Frank Luther Mott, stated "...local or home news, which would have been easy to obtain, remained largely an untilled field."(9) It was not until later in the century, when mail service and transportation routes had improved, that local events appeared in the columns of newspapers with more frequency. …