This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. Sophia is starting the MLIS program at the University of Pittsburgh Online, Fall 2020. This is the fourth in a series looking at African Americans in the business and sciences.
While searching through the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, I came across several photos of African American newspaper boys from the early 20th century who were also known as “route boys” or even “newsies.” These newspaper boys worked in cities across the United States, including Chicago, Newark, and the Harlem neighborhood. One boy in particular struck me because he was selling copies of The Chicago Defender, one of the largest African American newspapers during the 20th century, which still exists today in digital format. This led me to research the history of African American newspapers, and below I briefly discuss some of the most influential ones of their time.
The First African American Newspaper
Freedom’s Journal, the first African American owned and operated newspaper, began circulating in 1827. In the first issue of Freedom’s Journal, the newspaper editors, John Brown Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, wrote, “We wish to plead our case. Too long have others spoken for us.” Published from 1827-1829, Freedom’s Journal covered regional, national, and international news and addressed the issues of slavery and “colonization,” which involved the repatriation of free African Americans to Africa. Freedom’s Journal helped lead the way for other black-owned newspapers in the 19th century. By 1861, over 40 black-owned and operated newspapers circulated throughout the country.
The North Star
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” — Frederick Douglass
Born into slavery in 1818, Frederick Douglass escaped in 1838 at the age of twenty. Douglass worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery in his various roles as activist, author, public speaker, and editor of various newspapers, including The North Star, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and New National Era, from the years 1847-1874. The North Star covered many issues, including the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846-1848, as well as slavery and the abolitionist movement.
On page 1 of the June 23, 1848, issue of The North Star, the newspaper carried an article titled, “Revolution of the Spindles: For the Overthrow of American Slavery.” The writer stated, “Little dreamed the ingenious Eli Whitney, when riveting the teeth on his admirable invention, the cotton gin, that he was at the same time riveting the fetters on the slave, and the foulest of institutions on the framework of American society.” The paper then included statistics correlating the cotton trade with the slave population, demonstrating the steady rise in cotton exports from 189,316 pounds in 1790 to 1,250,500,000 pounds in 1846, at the same time that the slave population rose from 657,437 in 1790 to 3,000,000 in 1846.
The Chicago Defender
In 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded The Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper that he began with 25 cents and a press run of 300 copies. In the South, The Chicago Defender faced heavy opposition. White distributors refused to circulate the newspaper and the Ku Klux Klan and other groups confiscated the newspaper before it could be distributed, resulting in the newspaper being smuggled into Southern states. Although Abbott began the newspaper with 25 cents, the equivalent of approximately $7.30 in 2020 adjusted for inflation, he became one of Chicago’s first black millionaires. The newspaper vigorously covered the events of the Great Migration, a movement in which millions of African Americans left the South seeking opportunities in the North and West from approximately 1915 to 1970. Abbott, an ardent supporter of the movement, deemed it “The Second Emancipation.”
The Chicago Bee
In 1926, Anthony Overton, an African American millionaire who made his fortune in banking and manufacturing, founded The Chicago Bee to compete with The Chicago Defender. Although The Chicago Bee never challenged The Defender’s readership, it was a remarkable business as the staff was comprised of mainly women, with Olive M. Diggs acting as one of the newspaper’s managing editors. Other female editors included Ida B. Wells, one of those who founded the civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are the names of some other African American newspapers:
- Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003)
- Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988)
- Cleveland Call & Post (1934-1991)
- Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005)
- New York Amsterdam News (1922-1993)
- The Norfolk Journal and Guide (1921-2003)
- Philadelphia Tribune (1921-2001)
- Pittsburgh Courier (1911-2002)
- For those interested in learning more about Douglass’ life, Douglass wrote several autobiographies, including Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
- For those interested in learning more about Robert Sengstacke Abbott or Anthony Overton, read Robert Sengstacke Abbott: A Man, a Paper, and a Parade or The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago: Anthony Overton and the Building of a Financial Empire.
- For those interested in newsies, look at, Newsies: Topics in Chronicling America and search through the Newspaper Collection Frederick Douglass Newspapers, 1847 to 1874, Ida B. Wells: Topics in Chronicling America, and Chronicling America African American newspapers.
Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted, and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.