Ten Things to do on Black Press Day (March 16th)

Freedom_s_Journal188 years ago, on March 16, 1827, John Brown Russwurm and Reverend Samuel Cornish published the first Black newspaper in the United States, Freedom’s Journal.  To commemorate this milestone, the National Newspaper Publishers Association  (NNPA) has designated March 16th “Black Press Day.” In keeping with this idea here are ten ways to celebrate the history of African American newspapers:

  1. Read a Black newspaper
  2. Research the Black Press or a Black journalist
  3. Tweet a “thank you” to a contemporary Black newspaper/journalist for maintaining the tradition and legacy of Black journalism
  4. Subscribe to and/or advertise with a Black newspaper
  5. Write an Op-Ed for a Black newspaper
  6. Teach your students or children about the history of the Black Press
  7. Watch Soldiers Without Swords
  8. Become a member of or advertise with the National Newspapers Publishers Association
  9. Advocate for the accessibility and preservation of Black newspaper archives
  10. Friend or follow a Black newspaper on Facebook and Twitter

Colored Conventions and the Early Black Press by Benjamin Fagan

0085w500Recently, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time looking through the minutes of the Colored Convention movement. Beginning in the early 1830s, national conventions were held on a regular basis across the northern United States and drew delegates from across the country. State conventions were also a regular occurrence, and after 1865 newly-free black men and women began organizing meetings in places like Virginia and South Carolina. The minutes of many of these conventions have recently been digitized at the Colored Conventions Project, an indispensible resource for those interested in nineteenth-century black activism.

Colored Convention minutes, at the national and state level, reveal the pride of place that black newspapers occupied for nineteenth-century black activists. For example, the delegates to the 1847 National Convention of Colored People, held in Troy, New York, spent nearly one quarter of the convention debating the report from the Committee on a National Press. The Committee called for the creation of a specifically “national” newspaper, which led to a fierce and illuminating debate over just what such a paper might look like, and who would be in control of its operations. Similar discussions fill the pages of Colored Convention minutes. Delegates to the 1841 state convention in Pennsylvania resolved “that in the opinion of this Convention, a newspaper conducted by the colored people, and adapted to their wants, is much needed in this state,” and the attendees of Ohio’s 1849 state convention recommended that “this Convention take measures to establish a Newspaper, in some of the towns in this State, which paper shall be the organ of the people.”

The minutes of Colored Conventions help us better understand the ways in which black activists envisioned and defined the purpose and production of black newspapers. The 1847 Committee on a National Press imagined “a full and complete establishment, wholly controlled by colored men; let the thinking writing-man, the compositors, pressman, printers’ help, all, all be men of color[.]” Seven years later, a report from the National Emigration Convention of Colored People made a similar point in calling for a periodical within which “all the articles shall be productions of colored men[.]” Such reports locate the blackness of the black press in the men and women (despite the language of the minutes) who led, made, and contributed to the publications. Few of the black newspapers and magazines before the Civil War actually met this standard (some had white printers, and all included a substantial amount of content from white writers), which underscores the difficulties of putting the principles outlined in the Convention reports into practice. In imagining a quarterly magazine, for example, the National Emigration Convention proposed that the “ablest colored writers in both hemispheres should be engaged as its regular contributors[.]” The publication was never realized, and the early black press rarely offered readers contributions from black writers from South America, but the Convention report highlights how some black activists saw the black press as a way to showcase and bring together black communities from across the Americas.

Finally, 19th-century Colored Convention minutes reveal the deep interconnectedness of black activist institutions. Many of the delegates to such conventions worked on actually existing black newspapers. Samuel Cornish, who in 1827 co-founded Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the United States, was a regular attendee at conventions in the 1830s, as was Philip Bell, who founded the Colored American. The 1847 convention was attended by black newspaper editors such as Frederick Douglass (North Star), Thomas Van Renssellaer (Ram’s Horn), and Charles B. Ray (Colored American). Martin Delany, who edited the Mystery and co-edited the North Star with Douglass, was perhaps the most prominent delegate to the 1854 National Emigration Convention. Mary Ann Shadd, editor of the Provincial Freeman, overcame fierce resistance to serve as a corresponding delegate to the 1855 National Colored Convention. These editors, and others, consistently printed the calls for Colored Conventions in their newspapers, and offered readers who could not attend detailed reports of the gatherings. Black newspapers and Colored Conventions, then, worked to create and support one another. And this relationship reminds us of the impossibility separating the history of the early black press from the larger story of black institutions in the 19th-century.

A BPRC member, Benjamin Fagan is also an assistant professor of African and African American Studies and English at the University of Arkansas.  He is completing a book manuscript that examines how the institutional and material forms of black newspapers helped shape ideas of black chosenness in the decades before the Civil War.


The Black Press and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The BPRC is always interested in highlighting scholars’ use of Black newspapers to shed greater insight into the past.  No matter what your position on the film Selma might be or on the debate over its portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, we believe it is important to recognize where the Black Press fits into the story of the Civil Rights Movement.   Alvin B. Tillery, Jr. Associate Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University uses Black newspapers to disclose the Black Press’s perspective on Johnson and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.






The Price Is NOT Right: Selling Black Press Archives

In many ways Cornel University library’s purchase of the New York Amsterdam News’ archive is “old news.” Now over two years, since the sale, the guide for the collection was recently completed this past spring in April and can be found here.  However, like many other Black Press scholars and researchers of African American history, I was unaware of Cornell’s acquisition of this trove of images until I stumbled over the guide while conducting research on Amsterdam News’ society columnist, Gerri Majors (née Geraldyn Hodges-Dismond).  When I read the announcement I experienced the same emotions learning that Viacom had bought BETTime Inc. had purchased Essence Magazine  and  L’Oreal had acquired Carol’s Daughter’s.  The purchase of Black-owned businesses by white companies is, for me, always fraught with complexity.  While I am certainly in no position to judge any of these business decisions, it does give me pause to critically consider the implication of products, media and services produced for Black people that are now under the purview of white-dominated corporate interest.

In the case of the Amsterdam News, my feelings are even more mixed.  Black Press archives, as BPRC member, Moira Hinderer points out are vulnerable institutions.  Often underfunded and understaffed, Black newspapers have a difficult time preserving and curating archival records to tell their own histories.  In many cases, it’s up to concerned people and individual libraries to ensure that Black newspapers no longer being published are collected and preserved.  Sadly, the reality of staying afloat financially is the primary concern for most contemporary Black newspapers.  In this sense the Amsterdam News’ decision to sell their photo archive might be viewed as a practical one as the revenue garnered from the sale almost certainly provided financial relief for the company.

Yet, as a researcher I would be remiss in not expressing the sense of excitement I feel at having a guide to the archive and knowing that images from the Amsterdam News are readily available at an institution with the resources to preserve and maintain the collection.   I imagine that soon many of these photographs will be digitized and made available to the public.  Nonetheless, the acquisition of a Black newspaper archive does not always mean better public access.  We see this in the case of the Atlanta Daily World  archive which was purchased by Emory University in 2008.  According to the guide, the collection remains unprocessed and located at an off-site location, though the records appear to be available to researchers on request.

To be clear, Black newspapers are not the only papers choosing to sell their photo archives.  All contemporary newspapers live in tough times, where for many, each year they are able to stay alive is a gift.  Selling newspapers’ old photos can be quite lucrative.   Thus, I can certainly understand why newspapers sell their archives, though I wish that Black newspapers could find other ways to generate revenue.  In some cases, newspapers broker deals which allow them to retain copyright and the intellectual property of documents or photographs.  I can only hope this is true of the agreements the Amsterdam News and Daily World struck with Cornell and Emory.

Despite the financial benefits,  I can’t help but feel that a more appropriate place for the Amsterdam News and Daily World’s archival collections are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture or the  Black Press Archives at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University  and at the Woodruff (AUC) Library Archives for Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman Colleges.  Like the Black Press, the Schomburg, Moorland-Spingarn and Woodruff are venerable Black institutions which have been at the core of the African American and African Diapsoric experience in the United States.  Not only do these institutions possess a shared commitment to documenting and giving voice to the historical Black experience, they also continue to support contemporary Black newspapers and other Black organizations and businesses.

Ironically, the Black identity, which I argue makes these institutions ideal for African American newspaper archives, is what makes it difficult for them to obtain the records.    In short, the crux of the problem is that historically Black colleges and universities’ (HBCUs) libraries and research centers, relative to their white counter-parts, often lack the budgets necessary to first, acquire Black Press collections and second, to digitize and maintain them.  Thus, it is not a matter of lack of desire for these collections but rather fiscal capacity which prevents  Black institutions from acquiring them.  On the other hand, elite and predominantly white academic and public institutions, while to be congratulated for recognizing the significance of Black Press history, are further enriched by their procurement of Black Press collections.  Researchers’ use and grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and preserve the archive enhance institutions already flush with wealth.

Black organizations, then, the very institutions that stand the most to gain by maintaining and holding on to Black Press collections are unable to acquire or preserve them.  For this reason efforts must be made to ensure that Black Press archival collections continue to be held by either the newspapers themselves or other Black-owned and Black-controlled institutions.   A model for this proposition is the archives of the AFRO American Newspapers in Baltimore.   John “Jake” Oliver great-grandson of founder, John H. Murphy, Sr., CEO and current publisher of the paper is to be commended for his commitment to retaining control over the newspaper’s archives.  Run by archivist,  JaZette Marshburn, the AFRO archives have partnered with a variety of institutions and organizations including Johns Hopkins University, Project Gado and Google to digitize and make their archival collections available to the public while finding innovative ways to generate income.

In spite of the short-term financial gain that Black newspapers achieve through the sale of their archives, the long-term consequence of not controlling their own history and the loss of potential revenue down the road may not make the transaction worth the figurative and literal price.  Consequently, Black Press archives are left all the more poor when they choose to sell their collections.