The Black Press Celebrates 190 Years

A display wall showcases the front pages of the nation's black newspapers. (Travis Riddick/NNPA)
A display wall showcases the front pages of the nation's black newspapers. (Travis Riddick/NNPA)

The oldest black business industry in America began 190 years ago this month.

On March 16, 1827, the first edition of the Freedom’s Journal was published, thrusting African-Americans into the bustling publishing business. At the time, blacks in America weren’t even considered citizens — most were slaves and forbidden to read or write.

However, up rose John Russwurm and the Rev. Samuel Cornish, both men bravely declaring that “others have spoken too long for us; now we wish to speak for ourselves.”

“When the Black Press was founded by the publishing of Freedom’s Journal, it was to provide a voice for black people. And it became the only means of communication between black people,” said Dorothy Leavell, publisher of the historic Chicago Crusader newspaper, which in 2015 celebrated its 75th anniversary.

“Black men and women were vilified in the New York press in the 1800s; some white newspaper publishers sought to defend the dignity, honor and character of black people, however Russwurm and Cornish said they wish to plead our own cause,” Leavell said.

Without the Black Press, genuine stories of African-Americans would go untold, said Robert W. Bogle, the publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune.

“They would tell it through their lenses but only we can tell our story accurately,” Bogle said. “We are as relevant today as we were when the Freedom’s Journal said they wanted to tell our story in our words,” he said.

Denise Rolark Barnes, chair of the NNPA and publisher of The Washington Informer, said has taken time to reflect on and studied the 190-year milestone.

“It made me understand how the Black Press played a vital role in fighting for human rights, abolishing slavery and outlawing lynching,” Rolark Barnes said. “The lesson for us, as publishers, is that we must remain important in our communities and continue to be the voice for victims and spotlight those who have achieved success.”

While mainstream media remain distracted by the current political atmosphere, it’s vital that the Black Press continue to focus on telling the story of and recording black history, she said.

March 16, 2017, is a sacred historical day in the long, multidimensional freedom struggle of African people in America and throughout the world because of the courage of John Brown Russwurm and Samuel Cornish who dared first to publish Freedom’s Journal, said NNPA President and CEO Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.

“For 190 years the Black Press in America has been on the front lines of social change in the United States,” Chavis said. “Today more than ever the Black Press remains the trusted and audacious voice of black America.

“The NNPA today continues this irrepressible tradition of publishing truth to power,” he said. “Our freedom-fighting publishers are all united as we reaffirm the vital importance and relevance of the Black Press now and into the future.”

It’s important to note that the Black Press has become the source of information for jobs, weddings, births, deaths and even entertainment, said Jacqueline Miles, publisher of the half-century-old Pensacola Press in Florida.

“Today, the Black Press still serves the African-American community with news that is vital to them. We still endeavor to bring about news that will educate and keep our communities aware of what’s going on,” Miles said.

Further, Miles said, with the term “fake news” emanating regularly from the White House and the new administration, it’s imperative that the Black Press remain vigilant.

“We must be the glue to hold our community together and encourage togetherness, in business and economically, in this new Donald Trump era,” Miles said.

Harry Colbert Jr. recently summarized the importance of the Black Press in a column for Insight News, an NNPA member newspaper, where he touted the achievements many that were noted only through the pages of the Black Press.

Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures,” said if not for the archives of the Black Press such as the Norfolk Journal and Guide and the Pittsburgh Courier, the inspiring story of black women geniuses at NASA would not have been possible to tell.

If not for the Florida Sun newspaper in Orlando, the story of the great training in science and technology happening at Bethune-Cookman University — one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities — would go untold and unnoticed, he said.

“In Baton Rouge, it may have been a citizen’s lens that captured the senseless killing of Alton Sterling at the hands of police, but it is [black newspaper] The Drum that keeps Sterling’s memory alive and is shining the white-hot spotlight on those responsible for his homicide,” Colbert said.

“When factions of the so-called ‘alt-right’ — a movement of racism and intolerance — try to co-opt the words while ignoring the actions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it was the Rev. Dr. Chavis, who provided a comprehensive and accurate remembrance of the revered freedom fighter,” he said.

Hiram Jackson, the publisher of Real Times Media in Michigan, said it’s important to note the significance of Russwurm and Cornish’s words.

“‘We wish to plead our own cause’ — words that continue to be as inspirational today as the movement they were declared on the front pages of Freedom’s Journal,” Jackson said. “Looking at those words today, I am awe-struck at the vision of the Black Press forefathers and am heartened knowing that this statement continues to shine as our collective beacon.

“The voice of the Black Press is as important today as it has ever been,” he said. “In today’s political climate, we cannot afford to miss any opportunity to educate, enlighten, and inform our community on the issues that our very lives depend on.”

Journalist, author, activist and Black Press historian A. Peter Bailey said the NNPA has always provided a great service to African-Americans through the pages of its newspapers.

An adjunct professor at the University of District of Columbia, Bailey said it’s also vital that coverage continues to spotlight black economics.

“There are four basic functions of the Black Press as mentioned during the 150th anniversary of the Black Press by Dr. Lee Barrow: To act as a watchdog for the black community, to answer attacks on the black community, to preserve black culture and to present a different viewpoint,” Bailey said.

“I believe the Black Press is doing OK on those, but we could do better by working more closely together and it would really help if the Black Press would dedicate a reporter at the United Nations who sends news to its member papers; a reporter on Wall Street who sends news to its papers because economics are the most important thing that the Black Press can report on for black people and there’s such a lack of serious coverage of economics that we need to have,” he said.

Editors of the Pasadena Journal noted that black-owned and operated media have been filled with the stories of trail blazers, pioneers and forerunners that helped get us to where we are today, with 48 black elected U.S. Congress members.

With the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling that said no black man has any rights that a white man must honor, there came a flood of black publications to advocate for black rights and to protest the wrongs done to blacks. Newspapers such as Freedom’s Journal, the Tri State Defender and the Chicago Defender paved the way for freedom, justice and equality.

An expose in Ebony Magazine in 1965 alerted the world to a black female engineer, Bonnie Bianchi who was the first woman to graduate from Howard University in Electrical Engineering, a magna cum laude and a masters from Renssaler Polytechnic Institute in technical writing.

Bianchi graduated from Dunbar High School in D.C. before attending Howard. Her parents wanted her to be a fashion designer. Instead, she designed nuclear equipment and was only one of 30 to do so in the United States at the time.

Sylvia Bishop, a West Virginia mother, became a licensed horse trainer, teaching thoroughbreds how to win races. She became one of the first women trainers in the country.

Angie Elizabeth Brooks, a United States trained attorney from Liberia became the first black woman to head a major committee in the United Nations.

“For years the debate was, is the Black Press dead? Everybody seems to have an opinion and one lie can travel a long way, just look at the Trump campaign,” Leavell said. “Lies propelled him into the White House. And, those of the opposition camp, run mostly by inexperienced and those socially jockeying for a position in society, advised candidates that they did not need the Black Press.”

After 190 years, the primary challenge facing the Black Press remains its limited human and financial resources needed to continue to tell news from the perspective of being black in America, said Brenda Andrews, publisher of The New Journal and Guide, a NNPA member paper that was founded in 1900.

“It is a mission that, at times, can seem like making bricks without sand, tying shoes without strings, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps without boots,” Andrews said. “But, for me, it’s a personally fulfilling mission that has been guided for the past 35 years by my deep spiritual faith.”

Andrews cautioned that black newspapers also tend to be underfunded, understaffed and undervalued, often by the very people the press exists to support.

Advertising and circulation are the two primary means that all media rely upon to exist, and black media has not received even a minute share of available advertising dollars from black or white businesses, from local, state or federal governments, or particularly from corporate America, which spends billions to promote its products and services to black citizens, but not through the media that represents that market, Andrews said.

“Black newspapers have been challenged to defy the odds of survival despite being short on capital and human resources,” she said. “To keep aiming to thrive rather than occupying a posture of survival for me, requires immense faith in the destiny of black America and a passion to ensure the American story includes the perspective of its black citizens. The challenges are ongoing and have not changed over the years.”