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From the start black newspapers tended to appear when circumstances made influencing white opinion and unifying the insurgent spirit among blacks a “strange necessity,” as one pre-Civil War black editor termed it. When Frederick Douglass began publishing his antislavery weekly North Star, in Rochester, New York, in 1847, some white abolitionists considered it presumptuous of him to be lecturing them in print on principles of liberty. “Let us have the facts. We’ll take care of the philosophy.” Not only North Star but the three other newspaper ventures that Douglass undertook were all extensions of his work as a lecturer and writer, a continuation of his leadership by other means.
However, their spirit of advocacy made black newspapers vulnerable to swift disappearance as well. None of the black abolitionist newspapers, the first of which appeared in 1827, was in existence after the Civil War. The conflict between sustaining missionary zeal and maintaining a newspaper as a business was in evidence from the very beginning, when summaries of news events and antislavery speeches ran alongside home remedies like cures for drunkenness.
After Reconstruction, black newspapers evolved from being a propaganda arm into a kind of opposition press, because even the friends of former slaves had their fears. For example, Horace Greeley himself favored suffrage for black men on a limited basis only. Henry Grady, the young editor of the Atlanta Constitution who invented the phrase “The New South,” never allowed his paper to mention any physical violence toward blacks. As long as white newspapers were unwilling or unable to attack “anti-Negro” forces or to air the views of black reformers, there was a service black newspapers could provide.
Black journalists became leading activists by the turn of the century because they owned or ran newspapers. But given the ephemeral nature of newspaper writing, and the general unavailability of published collections of writings by even the best black journalists of the past, those newspapermen who were once national figures have faded in memory. Timothy Thomas Fortune, for example, born a slave in 1856, was the most famous black newspaperman of his day until a nervous breakdown in 1907 forced him to sell his New York paper, The Age. He died in obscurity in 1928. William Monroe Trotter, born in 1872 and educated at Harvard, was the editor of the Boston Guardian from 1901 until his death, possibly by suicide, in 1934.
Ida B. Wells, born into slavery in 1862, was a schoolteacher when she wrote for a church newspaper in 1887 the story of her unsuccessful suit against segregated train travel. She became editor and part owner of a small paper in Memphis, The Free Speech, in 1889. In 1892 its offices were destroyed in order to silence her reports on the lynching of three black Memphis businessmen by their white competitors, and she found refuge at Fortune’s Age. “Having lost my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting …
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