Frederick Douglass Newspapers, 1847-1874: Now Online

The striking, forward-thinking motto, “Right Is of No Sex–Truth Is of No Color–God Is the Father of Us All, and All We Are Brethren,” initially appeared on December 3, 1847 in the first issue of The North Star, the earliest newspaper African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass founded and edited. That issue is one of 568 now digitized and freely available in Frederick Douglass Newspapers, 1847-1874 on the Library of Congress website.

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, a slave, in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland in February 1818. He escaped slavery in 1838 and went on to become one of the most significant orators, authors and journalists of the 19th century. While his best known writings are his three autobiographies, his newspaper articles and editorial choices showcase his brilliance and the evolution of his thinking over time.

Douglass believed in the importance of the black press and in his leadership role within it, despite the struggles of earlier black newspaper enterprises. That first issue of The North Star emphasized his belief in “Our Paper and Its Prospects”:

 

 

Douglass’ newspapers also stressed black self-improvement and responsibility. One stated objective of The North Star, was to “promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people.

While focusing on ending slavery and promoting the advancement and equality of African Americans, Douglass also strongly supported women’s rights, as proclaimed in The North Star‘s motto. In July 1848, he attended the first Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and was one of 32 men and 68 women to sign the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments, which stated, “all men and women are created equal.” He wrote about the convention in The North Star, July 28, 1848, and had the convention’s report printed at The North Star office.

The issues in this new online presentation are scanned from the Library’s original paper and microfilm collections covering three weekly newspaper titles:

The title of The North Star referred to the bright star, Polaris, that helped guide those escaping slavery to the North. As Douglass explained: “To millions, now in our boasted land of liberty, it is the STAR OF HOPE.”

In November 1847, Douglass moved from Lynn, Massachusetts to Rochester, New York to publish The North Star. His family followed in February 1848. Rochester was a thriving city on the Erie Canal and one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad before safe haven in Canada. The Rochester location also gave him distance from his early mentor, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, whose newspaper, The Liberator, was published in Boston, and who opposed Douglass’s newspaper venture. Initially, his co-editor was black abolitionist Martin R. Delany, who had published his own newspaper, The Mystery, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania until earlier in 1847. His first publisher was William Cooper Nell, a black abolitionist from Boston.

Douglass gained much of the funding to establish The North Star during a lengthy speaking tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland from late August 1845 to early April 1847. The tour followed the publication of his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. British abolitionist Julia Griffiths, whom he met during the tour, moved to Rochester in 1849 and was able to get the newspaper on better financial footing and also contributed articles and helped edit.

In June 1851, The North Star merged with the Liberty Party Paper (Syracuse, New York), under the title, Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Still published in Rochester with volume and issue numbering continuing from The North Star, Douglass remained editor. Former Liberty Party Paper editor, John Thomas, was corresponding editor.

Gerrit Smith, the wealthy abolitionist and staunch Liberty Party supporter, encouraged the merger. Smith, who had provided some funding for The North Star, provided additional financial support for Frederick Douglass’ Paper. A letter from Smith appeared on page 3 of the first issue of the Paper on June 26, 1851: “Much joy is expressed that you have settled down upon the anti-slavery interpretation of the federal Constitution.” This viewpoint meant a complete break from William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society and their support of nonvoting, pacifism, and the rejection of the Constitution as a proslavery document.

In 1859, Douglass added a monthly as a supplement to the weekly paper, but by mid-1860, Douglass’ Monthly replaced the weekly publication, as he increasingly focused on the impending Civil War and on recruitment and acceptance of black troops during the war. Douglass only ended the monthly publication in August 1863, when promised an army commission by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton after separate meetings with Stanton and President Lincoln about unequal pay and poor treatment of black troops. The commission never materialized, but 16 years of newspaper publication ended.

The New National Era, Douglass’s final newspaper venture brought him to Washington, D.C. In September 1870, he became editor-in-chief and part owner of the New National Era, renamed from the short-lived New Era, for which he had been a corresponding editor based in Rochester. This newspaper gave Douglass a platform to champion Reconstruction and Radical Republican policies and to attack the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the romanticizing of the South in the “Lost Cause,” and bigotry and violence against African Americans throughout the U.S.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His close association with the newspaper was relatively short-lived, however. After fully purchasing the newspaper so that it would not fail, Douglass mainly turned it over to his sons, Lewis and Frederick, Jr., who published it for its remaining few years. Writing about the New National Era in his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he stated, “A misadventure though it was, which cost me from nine to ten thousand dollars, over it I have no tears to shed. The journal was valuable while it lasted, and the experiment was full of instruction to me, which has to some extent been heeded, for I have kept well out of newspaper undertakings since.”

In early June 1872, while Douglass was residing in Washington, D.C., the Rochester home was destroyed in a devastating fire. His wife Anna and all other family members living there survived, but the house, barn, grounds, and most of their belongings were destroyed. This included sixteen volumes containing the The North Star, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and Douglass’ Monthly. No complete collection of Douglass’ newspapers appears to be available, but we are pleased to share the Library’s large collection of his three weekly newspapers online.

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