Researching the History of Black Press Circulation by Kim Gallon

Visualizing the circulation of the Baltimore Afro-American (AFRO), Chicago Defender (Defender) and the Pittsburgh Courier (Courier) three of the biggest and best selling weekly national Black newspapers helps to fully highlight the significance of the Black Press in the early twentieth century.

As the graph shows, the Defender reigned as the most popular national Black newspaper through the 1920s and into the mid 1930s. The Defender is most associated with encouraging southern African Americans to migrate North and instituting the greatest internal movement, the Great Migration, of people in United States. However, the Defender’s sales dropped sharply by the 1930s, largely due to the Great Depression and the increasingly competitive Courier. The Courier would eventually pass the Defender in 1937 and supplant it as the best selling Black national newspaper through World War II. Popular in its own right, the AFRO jockeyed for the top position and came close at times to beating the Courier and Defender if we look at the early and mid 1930s but could not manage to out sale either the Courier or the Defender or consistent enough basis.

While this data gives us a general idea of the popularity of the papers in comparison to each other, actual Black newspaper circulation data is difficult too ascertain. Although, Black newspapers primarily sold single copies through newsboys and newspaper dealers staked out in various locations across the country, the sale of one newspaper was subject to the “pass-on” phenomena popular among Black newspaper readers. Black papers were often purchased by a sole person and passed around to a minimum of three different people. The Courier cited the number of multiple readers of their paper as being as high as 10 readers at a time. In this sense, Black papers’, circulation records were almost certainly higher than what sales reflected.

Another issue comes up in trying to establish Black newspaper circulation in the early twentieth century. The Audit Bureau of Circulations (A.B.C.), the certifying agency of magazines and newspapers’ circulation for advertising agencies and manufacturers, deemed Black newspapers unimportant and unworthy of certifying their circulation until the late 1920s. This meant that Black newspapers self-reported their circulation without a governing body’s oversight for the first decades of the twentieth century. The AFRO regularly reported its numbers to N.W. Ayer and Son’s American Newspaper Annual Directory. Other papers reported infrequently or did not at all. Both the Courier and Defender failed to regularly send circulation statements to N.W. Ayer and Son’s until 1930 when they became members of A.B.C. In addition, membership in the A.B.C. could be expensive for most Black newspapers, which struggled to stay afloat, particularly in the lean years of the Great Depression and other economic downturns. As a result, circulation records are spotty for most Black newspapers until the middle of the twentieth century. The graph reflects breaks where there is no circulation data available in the N.W. Ayer and Son’s due to no report submitted by the Courier and Defender.

Despite some of the issues in establishing exact circulation numbers, it is evident that early twentieth century African American readers helped to make the Black Press one of the strongest and most powerful Black institutions in African American history. While the Black Press’s circulation would increase during the Civil Rights Moment period of the 1950s and 1960s, Black newspapers would not achieve the large weekly circulation that they once had during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the “Golden Age” of Black newspapers.