Race, Money, Politics and the Antebellum Black Press

By Rhodes, Jane | Journalism History, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview

Race, Money, Politics and the Antebellum Black Press


Rhodes, Jane, Journalism History


When John Russworm and Samuel Cornish launched the first African American newspaper, Freedom's Journal, in 1827, there seemed to be a vast and untapped audience hungering for news by and about the black community. In the first issue they optimistically observed that there were "FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND free persons of colour, one half of whom might peruse, and the whole be benefitted by the publication of the Journal."(1) But within a year Russworm had left the paper after the two clashed over the question of black colonization in Africa. Cornish renamed the paper the Rights of All and continued his quest to make it a dominant cultural and political force among free blacks. By 1829, he could not secure enough subscribers or underwriters to keep the paper going, and the first African American newspaper ceased publication.(2)

In the decades before the Civil War, sustenance was rare for the nearly forty African American newspapers that quickly appeared, only to quickly disappear. Russworm and Cornish's expectations of the free black community and its ability to support its own periodicals were clearly flawed. Poverty, illiteracy, competing political agendas, and the social effects of racism and discrimination contributed to the creation of an audience that could not support --financially or otherwise--a single vision of one newspaper. African American publications played a vital role in galvanizing the abolitionist movement, encouraging education and racial improvement, and disseminating the news, yet nearly all operated at a loss and most were short lived.(3)

Research on the antebellum black press has focused on the editorial content of these newspapers or the individuals who edited and published them. The most recent comprehensive study on the subject repeatedly points to the financial difficulties of these newspapers, but does not dwell on the specific economic, political, and cultural factors that impeded their success.(4) The often celebratory tone of the history of the black press overshadows the extent to which the dissemination of African American ideas and culture was obstructed in nineteenth century America. Research that considers the origins and maintenance of these obstacles can provide a more realistic understanding of the role of race in the evolution of American journalism.

This article is an examination of what happened to a little-known black newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, which was published between 1853-1860 in what is now Canada's Ontario province. The Freeman addressed a diverse community in Canada, comprised of fugitive slaves and African American expatriates, as well as abolitionists and missionaries on both sides of the border. It was among only a half-dozen antebellum black-owned newspapers in North America that lasted more than two years, although it eventually folded on the eve of the Civil War.(5)

Scholars have noted that few business records exist for nineteenth-century newspapers, and this is particularly true for small and undercapitalized black newspapers like the Freeman.(6) The lack of financial records does not mean that constructing such a history is impossible; rather, it may take some imagination and vigilance to create an economic profile of these papers.(7) The commentary in editorial columns, surviving correspondence, and other documents provide insight into the struggle for survival of the antebellum African American press. The narrative that unfolds in the pages of these papers describes an uphill battle waged by editors and publishers to build a viable subscription base, solicit donations, recruit advertisers, and receive payment for their product.

On the surface, at least, it appears that the problems that plagued the Freeman were not unlike those suffered by countless small-town and rural newspapers across the United states and Canada. Yet, when we consider the competing exigencies of the audience, African American newspapers faced additional obstacles. …

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