The time has arrived
Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 7
“... Daily slandered, we think that there ought to be some channel of communion between us and the public, through which a single voice may be heard, in defense of five hundred thousand free people of colour. For often has injustice been heaped upon us, when our only defense was an appeal to the Almighty: but we believe that the time has now arrived, when the calumnies of our enemies should be refuted by forcible arguments…”
This excerpt from the first volume of Freedom’s Journal, published 16 March 1827, summarises the motivation behind the first African American owned and operated newspaper.
To understand the significance of this weekly publication, it is important to recognise the backdrop of this period of American history, particularly that of New York City, where the newspaper was founded.
In 1799, New York introduced a law of gradual emancipation which saw enslaved children born after 4 July 1799 freed after a period of servitude for the first twenty-or-so years of their life. Another ‘freedom law’ was passed in 1817, with complete emancipation said to have taken place in 1827.
The discrepancy between the law and reality, however, was highlighted by British author Henry Bradshaw Fearon who described his visit to New York City in August 1817:
“New York is called a ‘free state’: that it may be so theoretically, or when compared with its southern neighbours; but… we should conclude that freedom from slavery existed only in words.”
Alongside these theoretical freedoms, black Americans had to contend with attacks, physical and otherwise, from the bulk of the white American community.
In the face of this constant persecution, editors Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm used Freedom’s Journal not only as a defensive tool but also as a mode of black American expression.
The Journal derided slavery, lynchings, racial discrimination, and other injustices. News of current events reported crimes perpetrated against African Americans; editorials were used to advocate for basic human rights, and opinion pieces were used to counter white supremacist rhetoric, openly propagated by prominent white individuals and establishments.
The emphasis on condemning and rebutting the endemic white supremacist rhetoric of the time was to offer some form of vindication for a race that had been relentlessly vilified and oppressed. The Journal also sought to stimulate some semblance of race pride in the face of centuries of indignity that had become synonymous with black skin.
To this end, the editors pointed at figures like Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and renowned poet Phillis Wheatley as inspirations, writing extensive pieces on their achievements and those of other prominent blacks.
The Journal also provided its readers with domestic and foreign reports, from publishing local job listings to providing international news coverage. It also published literary pieces, advertisements for black businesses and even wedding announcements.
The Journal sought to inform, educate and empower, and placed great importance on learning, intellectual development and solidarity within the black community.
The Journal was distributed across 11 states in total, as well as internationally in Haiti, Canada and England, and served as a repository of knowledge covering topics such as history, philosophy and science.
The Journal encouraged critical thinking and was recognised for its objective writing style. The editors encouraged debates and put great effort into presenting and examining both sides of a given case, something largely unseen among contemporary newspapers.
The Journal further distinguished itself from its contemporaries by including literary works by female authors. The Journal celebrated the beauty and character of black women as well as their great courage. One recurring author who published under the name ‘Matilda’ wrote several articles on the modern young black women destined to take an active part in remaking the world.
In September 1827, Russwurm became sole editor of Freedom’s Journal following the resignation of Cornish over differences regarding the growing back to Africa movement. Russwurm had begun to promote this colonisation effort which looked to create a colony of black Americans in West Africa.
This support for colonisation proved unpopular among readers, and subscriptions began to decline. In March 1829, the Journal ceased all publication.
Despite its relatively short two-year lifespan, Freedom’s Journal made an enormous impact on black American communities. By the beginning of the American Civil War, three decades later, there were over 40 black-owned and operated newspapers throughout the United States.