Magazine article Black History Bulletin

Power of the Printed Word: Freedom's Journal-The First Black Newspaper

Magazine article Black History Bulletin

Power of the Printed Word: Freedom's Journal-The First Black Newspaper

Article excerpt

In the 1990s, telecommunications in expanding exponentially with the Internet and other new technology made vast amounts of information suddenly affordable and accessible to hundreds of millions of people around the globe. An analogous communications revolution occurred in the 1830s, when advances in printing and papermaking made newspaper-production and -purchase possible for groups of people who previously had few if any opportunities to publish or read their side of the story.

In the 1998 film documentary, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, the historians Victor Jarrett and Phyl Garland discuss why and how African Americans began to publish their own newspapers. Garland states: "The black press was never intended to be objective because it didn't see the white press being objective. It often took a position. It had an attitude. This was a press of advocacy. There was news, but the news had an admitted and a deliberate slant." (1)

America's first black newspaper, boldly named Freedom's Journal, debuted in 1827 in the context of antebellum America's communications revolution. Freedom's Journal was the brainchild of a group of prominent black Northerners who, coming together at the New York home of M. Boston Crummell, a self-emancipated oysterman born in West Africa, were looking for a way to respond to the many articles in white newspapers attacking the black community. Deciding that an independent black newspaper would be the most viable answer, the men set out to find the most qualified men to serve as editors of that newspaper.

And so the black press was born on March 16, 1827, in New York City, when a Presbyterian minister named Samuel E. Cornish, along with one of the first college- educated blacks in America, John B. Russwurm, published the first edition of Freedom's Journal--America's first newspaper produced solely by, and intended specifically for, African Americans. The weekly was an impressive-looking, professional piece of work. Its neatly typeset printed matter appeared in four columns over four pages with overall dimensions of about 10-by-15 inches. The paper's motto, "Righteousness Exalteth a Nation," further set the tone of Freedom's Journal, which not surprisingly, at a time when America's slave system was at its peak, was filled regularly with writings condemning slavery and became quickly identified as an "abolitionist sheet." Some articles were original, while others were picked up (long before news-wire services) from other newspapers.

From a historical perspective, it can be seen that Freedom's Journal, widely considered as the first attempt in the black newspaper medium, was to be the forerunner of more than 2,800 other African American newspapers to appear in its wake--including some papers which are still published and influential today. It is doubtful that Crummell, Cornish, and Russwurm, among other brainstormers, launchers, and supporters of Freedom's Journal, realized that their independent newspaper would be the spark to light the flame of the black press in America, a flame that still burns today.

LESSON PLAN

Power of the Printed Word: Freedom's Journal--The First Black Newspaper

By Wendell Bourne

"We didn't exist in the other papers. We were never born, we didn't get married, we didn't die, we didn't fight in any wars, we never participated in anything of a scientific achievement. We were truly invisible unless we committed a crime. And in the black press, the Negro press, we did get married. They showed us our babies when they were born. They showed us graduating. They showed our PhDs."--Victor Jarrett

Connections to High School:

Newspapers shape public opinion, sometimes subtly, other times less so. High school students can be particularly conscious of how the press depicts teenagers and young adults, especially individuals of color. This lesson examines how in the 19th century African Americans established their own newspapers to speak for themselves. …

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