Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 17
Reading, Writing, and Resisting
African American Print Culture

James P. Danky

.  .  .

“The Colored Citizen continues to gain friends,” Charles Hunter wrote encouragingly in April 1878 to the editor of the Colored Citizen, a four-month-old newspaper published in Fort Scott, Kansas, some 300 miles west of his home in St. Louis, Missouri. “Our mutual friend Emanuel Davis, the popular Morgan Street barber, says he can’t keep shop without it. I am about to take a trip up the country in Illinois among the farmers, and as a great many of the colored people over there are anxious to learn all they can about Kansas and emigration, I shall present the Citizen to them as the means of obtaining the desired information.”1

These few lines reveal much about African American print culture during the first decades following emancipation: the interconnectedness of black people on the frontier; the diffusion of printed information through community spaces where print matter was shared; and the value of the printed word as a source of “desired information” about emigration. The Fort Scott paper, and many others like it, provided a national black forum that informed politics, shaped organizations, and aroused public opinion around such issues as assimilation, emigration, and education.

The influence of the African American press is often acknowledged in the historical literature, but until recently, few publications had examined African American history from the perspective of the press, and there has been little curiosity about its readership.2 Regional, religious, gender, generational, and class differences, which shaped and were shaped by racism and segregation, created a richly varied African American culture and an equally diverse black print culture. This chapter examines the attainment of mass literacy and the development of a vibrant print culture among African Americans in the seventyfive years following emancipation.

Today, little evidence remains of the 2,700 African American papers published between 1827 and 1950.3 At its height, the power of the African American press was immense, though it was never the sole print source for black Ameri-

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