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Professionals

Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color—A Journey from Prison to Power

by Patrice Gaines
Crown, 295 pp., $24.00

Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience

by Jill Nelson
Penguin, 244 pp., $9.95 (paper)

In My Place

by Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Vintage, 257 pp., $11.00 (paper)

Warriors Don’t Cry

by Melba Beals
Washington Square Press, 312 pp., $10.00 (paper)

Children of the Dream: The Psychology of Black Success

by Audrey Edwards, by Craig K. Polite
Anchor, 287 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Do Prosperous Blacks Still Have the Blues?

by Ellis Cose
HarperPerennial, 192 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Out of the Madness: From the Projects to a Life of Hope

by Jerrold Ladd
Warner, 195 pp., $19.95

Bourgeois Blues An American Memoir

by Jake Lamar
Plume, 174 pp., $9.00 (paper)

1.

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.1

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.2 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 at the truth, I felt that I owned it to myself and my race to tell the whole truth.” Wells inaugurated a nationwide campaign against lynching, collecting her documentation on the subject in two books, Southern Horrors (1892) and A Red Record (1895). Wells, who married the editor of Chicago’s first black newspaper, began to write her autobiography three years before her death in 1931, although Crusade for Justice was published only in 1970.3

Of the three thousand black newspapers that have appeared in the US, 1,876 were founded between 1880 and 1915, and only fifteen of those survive. Seventy percent of black newspapers during this period were located in the South until their readership began to migrate in 1910, but more than geography governed their tone. The poet James Weldon Johnson’s brief career as a newspaperman was typical. When he was a teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1896, he thought back to an earlier ambition and used his savings to start an afternoon newspaper, The Daily American, which, initially, was a success. Whites curious to know what was really going on among blacks also subscribed. But Johnson was obliged to suspend publication after eight months, citing as factors in the failure his inexperience, paralyzing plant costs, and the competition of the “colored columns” in the two white afternoon papers that already reported the club and church activities of blacks in the city. As telling, however, was Johnson’s observation in his autobiography, Along This Way (1933), that “the colored people of Jacksonville, regardless of what their will might be, were not able to support the kind of newspaper I sought to provide for them.” Shortly after the newspaper’s demise, Johnson commented at a meeting of black businessmen that the only sound investment he could think of was the Negro graveyard, because Negroes had to die, had to be buried, and had to be buried in segregated cemeteries.

By the 1920s, the functions of black newspapers as an opposition press had been taken over by periodicals that were the house organs of various black institutions or civil rights groups. Because of institutional backing, Du Bois was able to insist on high editorial standards at The Crisis, but The Messenger, which A. Philip Randolph had founded in 1917 as an unaffiliated, socialist antiwar magazine, began in the Twenties to imitate entertainment monthlies in an effort to keep its Harlem readers. The newspapers that were independent were often subsidized, either by philanthropy or, like many white papers, by political patronage. There had long been a correlation between a paper’s finances and its editorial policy. Booker T. Washington’s fingers controlled many persuasive dollars. The lobby of The Chicago Defender is a temple to that newspaper’s longevity. Display cases celebrate its luck in having been continuous since 1905. But it was also the newspaper whose editors were accused of having been paid to help frustrate Randolph and the first black union of workers, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As with other black institutions, in order to reconcile the ongoing existence of a black newspaper with the emotionalism of February Is Black History Month, one must sometimes bury the paper’s past selfinterests or social allegiances in a forgiving context.

Gunnar Myrdal praised black newspapers as “a fighting press” in An American Dilemma. He was writing during World War II, when the black press was at its peak of influence and circulation, because it had found again its voice of opposition, agitating for fair employment practices and desegregation in defense industries. White civilians frequently attacked black troops stationed in segregated training camps in the South, and the black press seized every opportunity to point out that soldiers were being asked to risk their lives abroad for a freedom they were denied at home. The federal government worried that bad publicity would hurt the war effort and gave in the many of their demands. As the journalist Roi Ottley wrote in Black Odyssey (1948), “In its honest fury against injustice the Negro press often verged on sensationalism” and “made no pretense at objectivity whatsoever” because it became a platform for black leaders, an instrument of public education, and a coordinator of mass action, and this “compelled [it] to bias.”

While the federal government yielded to inflammatory “race angling” news reports in the black press, the sudden power of black newspapers as a lobby in the Forties contained their future marginality. As postwar black newspapers became able to attract national advertisers, they began to assume the character of any ordinary enterprise. Unlike white newspapers, black newspapers historically had depended more on subscriptions than advertisements for revenue. Reluctant to lose sources of new income and intimidated by the cold war’s repression, black newspapers became cautious, thus alienating the future black professionals of the GI Bill generation, as well as the laboring masses.

To adapt to the changed political climate, most black papers ceased to project a national image and concentrated on local events. Perhaps this was another reason why circulation began to decline rapidly in the 1950s. The most resilient papers were family properties, sometimes a part of diverse family holdings. Then, too, a separate black press came to seem obsolete or contrary to the ideals of an integrated society. As of the early 1970s Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther, very much in the black nationalist manner of Marcus Garvey’s Negro World in the 1920s, were, in circulation at least, the last truly national black newspapers.

Robert E. Johnson, executive editor of Jet, remembered 1952 at Syracuse University’s School of Journalism as “a time to be ashamed if your white classmates caught you reading a black newspaper.” As more blacks moved into the middle class, they turned to the quality papers of the university educated, which, along with television, were giving more coverage, however slanted, to stories about bus boycotts, voter registration, and school desegregation. No matter how much black nationalism was involved, there was also a creeping suspicion that a blackowned newspaper was inferior goods, in the way it was felt that stores in poor neighborhoods routinely stocked the lowest grade of merchandise.

The statistics vary, but there are between 200 and 250 black newspapers in the US at present. Three of them are dailies, compared to an estimated 1,750 white-owned dailies. When magazines are included, the number of black journals increases to around 300. Black newspapers have a restricted presence unless one knows not only where to look for them but what banners to look for. To be distinctive in an age when there seem to be more blacks on television than there are in the whole US population, the black press relies on the deeply rooted prejudice among their readers that blacks in trouble will get a raw deal from the white media and the judicial system, that Tawana Brawley, Mike Tyson, Marion Barry, and O.J. Simpson will have no greater defenders or vigilant advocates. The editorial policy begins to resemble fortune telling: make enough predictions and one of them may come true.

Roy Wilkins, a newspaper man, was perhaps the last national civil rights figure to emerge from that junction of middle-class black life where profession and leadership met. While in time blacks would begin to cross the narrow bridge to wider employment possibilities, in journalism crossing over meant leaving advocacy behind. And one wonders if black newspapers are honestly regarded as stepping stones anymore. Luther P.Jackson, Jr., who had been the only black reporter at The Washington Post in 1959, argued in 1979 that the daily media, with a predominantly white readership to serve and so many subjects to cover, could never give issues and events of interest to blacks the attention they demanded, hence the importance of “an abiding and permanent” black press. “Integration has shown that there is no correlation between the numbers of stories about blacks that appear in newspapers and the number of black reporters employed by them.” The black press, Jackson went on to say, had paid a heavy price for integration: it could no longer rely on mass circulation among blacks for support, confidently claim to speak for blacks, or “pick and choose among black journalists.”4

  1. 1

    Penelope L. Bullock, The Afro-American Periodical Press, 1838–1909 (Louisiana State University Press, 1981).

  2. 2

    Ralph McGill, No Place to Hide: The South and Human Rights, two volumes, edited and with an introduction by Calvin M. Logue (Mercer University Press, 1984).

  3. 3

    See also the Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells, edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (Beacon Press, 1995).

  4. 4

    Foreword to Georgetta Merritt Campbell, Extant Collections of Early Black Newspapers: A Research Guide to the Black Press, 1880–1915 (Whitson Publishing, 1981).

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