Black Newspapers & America's War for Democracy, 1914-1920

By Armfield, Felix L. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Black Newspapers & America's War for Democracy, 1914-1920


Armfield, Felix L., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Black Newspapers & America's War for Democracy, 1914-1920. By William G. Jordan (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. 225. Cloth, $39.95, paper $18.95).

William G. Jordan has completed a long awaited task. This synthesis promises to challenge existing notions of freedom and democracy in our evolving republic. Jordan's study makes clear what African-American intellectuals have long since professed. Eugene Kinckle Jones, who served as the Executive Secretary of the National Urban League from 1916-1940, once lamented in the 1920s, "The challenge of democracy is before us. The Negro is probably the real test of democracy in America." (Eugene Kinckle Jones, "Negro Migration in New York State," Opportunity, January 1926.) Jones's prophetic statement spoke across the ages and surely could have been lifted from the front-page headline of practically every black newspaper in the country for the time period. Jordan has allowed us to understand how African Americans fought for democracy abroad and at home during the First World War.

Jordan offers an impressive cross section of the nation's leading black newspaper s from the nineteenth century and into twentieth century. Jordan argues that the "publications make up a reasonably typical cross section of the black press during World War I."(9) The book took its thesis from the front-page headlines of these leading black newspapers of the period. This synthesis follows the life of the black press in the United States beginning with the first black newspaper publication, Freedom's Journal, in 1827 by John Russwurm and Rev. Samuel Cornish of New York City. Though the major thrust of this study is designed to center upon black America's fight for democracy both abroad and at home, it no less is a study of the evolution of black newspapers in the United States.

What is most astounding about Jordan's analysis of black newspapers is the degree to which they often differed and at other times came together in concert. Most of the newspapers profiled, such as the New York Age, the Boston Guardian, the Richmond Planet, and the Washington Bee, were viewed as radical against mainstream/white newspaper accounts. However, there were some black newspapers that were not necessarily viewed as radical and were indeed read by white audiences. Furthermore, during the First World War the black press initially favored the War efforts to make the "world safe for democracy." It became more and more evident that President Wilson's fight for democracy abroad did not curtail the disfranchisement of African Americans at home. …

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