As we continue to defend the value of brave and truthful newspaper reporting, let’s use day 18 of black history month to raise a glass to the staff of Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American owned and operated newspaper. It was published in New York City from 1827 to 1829. It was a four-column weekly, and a year’s subscription cost $3. It circulated in 11 states, plus Canada, Haiti, and parts of Europe.
It was…a newspaper. It reported on everything, foreign and domestic. It was abolitionist, which most white newspapers of the time weren’t. It recorded significant births and deaths in the african american community, which wouldn’t usually make it into white newspapers. It was staunchly pro-education. It included poetry and humor, and letters from explorers abroad.
The newspaper folded because of a disagreement between the two editors, Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm. Russwurm was a big advocate for African recolonization – he didn’t think african americans were ever going to get a fair shake in the US, and supported a mass migration to either Haiti or Liberia. Cornish thought that was a dumb idea and was tired of hearing about it. He left. Russwurm published a bunch of pro-emigration editorials and the paper shed subscribers, because unsurprisingly most african american readers viewed themselves as Americans who would rather fix the country where they and their friends and families already lived.
Russwurm did have the strength of his convictions, and left for Liberia himself in 1929. He became a governor there, and a secretary of education, and learned several of the native languages (which was unusual and laudable, since the Americo-Liberians tended to be insular and look down on “bush” Africans). Cornish came back to try to revive the newspaper, and kept it going another year as The Rights of All – but it was too late. He moved on to edit other papers including The Weekly Advocate and Colored American, and was one of the founding members of the American Anti-Slavery Society.