The First African-American Newspaper

By Fee, Frank E., Jr. | Journalism History, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The First African-American Newspaper


Fee, Frank E., Jr., Journalism History


Bacon, Jacqueline. Freedom's Journal: The First African-American Newspaper. New York: Lexington Books, 2007. 336 pp. $29.95.

On March 16, 1827, Freedom's Journal became the nation's first newspaper published by African Americans. Although it ceased publication on March 28, 1829, the newspaper contributed significantly to a "community" partly of its own making and left a legacy that the African-American press has followed ever since. It was the progenitor of a rich though under-appreciated history of black journalism in the United States.

In her latest book, Jacqueline Bacon successfully recovers the importance of Freedom's Journalboai as an artifact of, and an influence on, the 1820s free black community, whose accomplishments, sophistication, and intellectual acumen are too often undervalued in history books. She is an independent scholar with an extensive publication record in history, rhetoric, gender, and race, and she offers an important look at the rhetoric and rhetorical impulse of the African-American population of the time.

This is more than a history of Freedom's Journal. It is an informative and accessible examination of the social and cultural climate in which the newspaper was born. Although slavery was a featured topic in its columns, Bacon argues that Freedom's Journal was not simply an abolitionist publication. As a "race paper" dedicated to uplifting and improving the race, she shows that Freedom's Journalwas far more complex and far more important.

In making her case, Bacon recovers the eloquence, complexity, and nuance of the African-American community of the early nineteenth century. The paper's founders, Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, told readers in the first issue, "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us." In the excerpts provided, we see Cornish, Russwurm, and their correspondents pleading their cause eloquently and establishing that some in the free black community were far more capable of taking charge of their own affairs than their white contemporaries were willing to concede and than some historians have acknowledged.

Bacon examines the rhetoric of Cornish, Russwurm, and various contributors and connects the content to the leading issues facing and being discussed in the African-American community of the day: slavery, of course, but also social and cultural development of the race as well as African Americans' relations with the white community, in particular the frequently conflicted relationship with whites who, though abolitionists, were also clearly racists. …

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