Freedom's Journal: The First African-American Newspaper

Article excerpt

Jacqueline Bacon. Freedom's Journal: The First African-American Newspaper. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. Bibliography, notes, index. Pp. ix, 324. Cloth, $80.00. Paper, $29.95.

In the 1820s and 1830s, African-Americans in New York State and especially New York City actively debated abolitionism and West African colonization. In March 1827, Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm thrust Freedom's Journal into the center of that debate. Similar to William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator published in Boston, MA and the African Observer published in Philadelphia, PA., Freedom's Journal helped readers engage with local, national and international issues. However, the Journal was unique: it was the first newspaper in the United States edited and published by African-Americans. Cornish and Russwurm envisioned their paper as a four-page weekly devoted to ending slavery, debating colonization, and exploring issues important to the African-American community in New York City and beyond. Like other papers of the era, the Journal was sold by subscription and distributed through the mail. Men and women from Haiti, Canada, England and the United States (both North and South) subscribed. While a multi-layered debate over slavery and colonization raged throughout the United States, Freedom's Journal offered African-Americans a means of documenting and working toward ending their oppression.

In this much needed work, Jacqueline Bacon provides a detailed analysis of the contents of Freedom's Journal. Despite its importance to journalism and the African-American experience, no historian has undertaken a comprehensive study of the newspaper. Bacon's work emphasizes the Journal's historical significance and demonstrates that scholars should consider it as a precursor to other often referenced African-American edited newspapers, like Frederick Douglass's The North Star (Rochester, NY). She does not attempt to glorify the paper or its editors; rather, she provides scholars and general readers an overview of the periodical's founding and its demise. By detailing the Journal's short and long-term contributions, Bacon outlines some of the ways African-Americans influenced antebellum American culture. In the 1820s, the Journal was one of the only periodicals to publish works by black writers and intellectuals. Bacon liberally uses evidence from the newspapers to examine the anti-slavery ideology, the lives and the opinions held by African-Americans - not white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, or Arthur and Lewis Tappan. This unique body of evidence lends authenticity to the work. Freedom's Journal ceased publication in 1829, but as a result of a careful reading of each issue and a thoughtful attempt to place the newspaper in its proper historical context, Bacon's work provides us with a much-needed assessment of its historical significance.

More than other publications of the period, Freedom's Journal offered African-Americans "useful knowledge." Black businessmen -from shopkeepers and craftsmen to boarding house keepers- found that advertisements placed in its pages brought customers to their doors. Editors Cornish and Russwurm promoted social activism throughout the United States by offering readers useful information about the African-American community. They regularly found clever ways to critique the white press's coverage of issues and events they deemed important. For instance, since it was so often used as a means of social control, they published articles offering critical perspectives on the criminal justice system. For instance, on 3 August 1827, the Journal was the nation's first newspaper to report the details of a lynching and burning that took place in Alabama. In contrast to other newspapers of the time, Cornish and Russwurm were bi-partisan. They asserted that the "free expression" of "opposing views" was their goal; therefore, it was not unusual for readers to find articles that challenged the political, social or cultural positions taken by Cornish and Russwurm (91). …


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