A Brief History of Black Newspapers
Images are early publishers of black newspapers: John B. Russwurm (1799-1851), Samuel E. Cornish (1795-1858), and Frederick Douglass (1818-1895).
One of my secondary characters in Seeing the Elephant is a young man by the name of Edward Caldwell, whom Eli hires as a reporter. Eli does this even though Edward is black and, living as Eli does in the 1860s, he knows the young man will face challenges as he goes out to interview people who are white. But Eli also has him on staff precisely because Edward is black. Edward is able to interact freely with people of color and will get close to what Eli calls “the whole story.”
But before I discuss Edward, I thought it would be helpful to offer some brief information on the history of black newspapers in the 1800s.
A website dedicated to the story of The Reflector, a black newspaper located in Charlottesville, VA, also provides a history of black papers in general. It mentions that the birth of these newspapers occurred in the antebellum era “as a medium of expression of abolitionist sentiment.” Freedom’s Journal, started by Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm in 1827 is an example. Sadly, it stopped circulation in 1830 due to small readership. People generally are more familiar with the North Star and its well-known founder Frederick Douglass, and yet Douglass’ paper also was forced to shut down for lack of readers (“History of African American Newspapers”).
Later on, newspapers run by and catering to the African-American people were created with two goals in mind: 1) to make a profit; and 2) to uplift the black community and “give African-Americans the news through the lens of their own eyes.” These papers were located in most large cities. Chicago had its Defender, Detroit the Tribune, Pittsburgh the Courier, and New York the Amsterdam News. (“History of African American Newspapers”).
Today, a newspaper by the name of The Christian Recorder serves “the African Methodist Episcopal Church in local communities and around the world in 39 countries on five continents with a robust print and online presence.” It is the oldest existing black periodical in the United States, born in 1848 at the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and christened The Christian Herald. Its name was changed to The Christian Recorder in 1852 and although it had several other names throughout the 1800s and 1900s, it reverted to the Christian Recorder in 1984. (“A Brief History of The Christian Recorder.”)
The newspaper’s first editor was the Rev. M. M. Clark, who also was one of the first college graduates in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Clark determined that “the Recorder’s focus would be religion, morality, science and literature and it was to treat all geographical areas of the A.M.E. Church equally.”
Although The Christian Recorder was understandably concerned with religious news, it also covered stories such as “education, voting rights, equality, and other secular issues that affected the lives of black Americans.” It was unafraid to tackle racism, classism, and slavery. The paper strongly opposed slavery and “repeatedly addressed the biblical and moral issues of slavery while encouraging black consciousness.” Additionally, black women wrote articles for and about black women and family issues (“A Brief History”).
After the Civil War, the newspaper advised readers on how to protect their families from harassment and harm by white antagonists and how to reunite families separated by slavery. It also advocated universal education, access to higher education, and education of the clergy (“A Brief History”).
Why am I writing so much about The Christian Recorder? Because it just so happens to be one of the papers the fictional Edward Caldwell worked for before going to the Blaineton Register. Eli, who knew his papers and read widely, was impressed and snapped the young man up. And rightly so.
Edward’s story is coming on Friday.
“History of African-American Newspapers,” The Reflector: An African-American Newspaper Depicting African-American Life in Charlottesville, VA During the Jim Crow Era.
“A Brief History of The Christian Recorder,” The Christian Recorder.com.
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