Tag Archives: Antebellum Black Press

Crossing National Boundaries with the Early Black Press by Ben Fagan

As one part of a larger forum on “Digital Approaches to Periodical Studies” recently published in American Periodicals (a collection that includes a contribution from the BPRC’s Kim Gallon), I discuss how we might confront and change the fact that black newspapers published before the Civil War are totally absent from freely accessible digital databases like Chronicling America, and can instead only be accessed by those who are affiliated with institutions that subscribe to databases created by the for-profit companies that have “captured” and assert ownership over publications produced by 19th-century African Americans. My piece focused on the problems that this state of affairs presents for scholars researching early black newspapers, but the racial politics of digitization also cripple our ability to teach the black press to our students. In particular, the absence of early black newspapers in publicly available digital archives makes it nearly impossible to invite students studying outside of the United States to explore the depth and range of the early black press.

Through the Fulbright program, I am spending this semester teaching early African American literature to students at the University of Graz, in Austria. Because of the high-cost of obtaining print copies of African American literary texts outside of the United States, nearly every text that I have chosen to teach is freely available online. Since I am focusing my classes on early African American literature I have not had much difficulty finding high-quality digital versions of the vast majority of texts I assign, thanks in large part to the efforts of the team that created the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South archive. DocSouth makes it simple and easy for my students to locate and read works by David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs. But my time in Austria has crystalized the difficulties of teaching with black newspapers abroad, since there is not yet an equivalent of DocSouth for early black newspapers. As I discussed in an earlier blog post, there are a variety of ways to incorporate black newspapers into the literature classroom, including methods specifically designed for spaces where we do not have access to expensive digital archives. For example, Just Teach One: Early African American Print has provided a wealth of materials that make teaching the short story “Theresa” (from Freedom’s Journal) and the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (which appeared in the Anglo-African Magazine) possible. Both those texts appear on my syllabi this semester in Austria.

But since my students cannot access the wider body of early black newspapers, we cannot explore together some of the more striking connections that early black newspapers created between the United States and Europe, in general, and Austria, in particular. For example, in 1848 Frederick Douglass’s newspaper The North Star devoted a substantial amount of space to connecting the revolutions that rocked Europe that year to the fight for black liberation in the United States (if so inclined, you can read more about those efforts here). And in 1852 Douglass’s second newspaper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, spent months covering and commenting on the visit of the Hungarian nationalist and revolutionary Louis Kossuth to the United States. Kossuth holds a particular relevance to Austrian history, since he was fighting to free Hungary out from under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And in its coverage of Kossuth’s visit, Frederick Douglass’ Paper routinely connected that anti-imperial struggle to the fight for black liberation in the United States. In teaching early African American literature in Austria, I am always inviting students to consider how what we are reading relates, in some way, to their own lives and history. Early black newspapers in particular encourage precisely this kind of reflection since they often worked to carry and connect the concerns of black men and women living in the United States to readers in a variety of international locales. The lists of subscription agents and, in the case of The North Star, ledgers of early black newspapers show how these journals courted readers in spaces such as Haiti, Jamaica, Scotland, England, and Ireland. And the coverage of Kossuth’s 1852 visit in Frederick Douglass’ Paper offers a prime example of how early black print linked the causes and concerns of black Americans in the United States and Europeans. I can tell my students about the presence of Kossuth in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and share with them individual articles and quotes from the paper. But since my students do not have access to the digital versions of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which sit behind subscription paywalls, I cannot invite them to read deeply and broadly in early black newspapers, and see what kinds of connection emerge though that experience.

The potential for teaching with black newspapers outside of the United States, and the difficulties of doing so at present, reinforce the need to change the status quo of periodical digitization. A collectively created, freely accessible archive and database of the early black press would make it possible for readers across the world to access and engage with works that are not only critical to our understanding of African American literature and history, but that also routinely related that literature and history to distant places and peoples. An open archive would, then, make it possible for teachers and students at institutions within and beyond the United States to use the early black press to reveal and create international connections, and in doing so to honor and continue the efforts of the men and women who fought so hard to create and distribute early black newspapers in the first place.


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.


Beyond 12 Years A Slave: The Early Black Press and the Kidnapping of Free Black Children by Kim Gallon

lOver the past few months, Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave has reinvigorated a public conversation about the history of slavery in the United States.   The film is probably the best cinematic representation of the complexity and brutality embedded in the  North American slave system.   The film recounts the real-life experiences of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man kidnapped into slavery for 12 years in 1841.    Prior to the film, many, if not most, Americans were unaware of the abduction of free African Americans in the North.  However, the kidnapping of free Blacks happened regularly enough that it posed a significant threat to the security of free Black communities, including ones in the South. According to Carol Wilson, free Blacks living in Pennsylvania, and Delaware, states bordering Maryland, faced the most danger. The proximity of these regions to the Mason-Dixon line facilitated kidnappers’ transportation of their victims to southern farms, plantations and urban centers.  1

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  1. Carol Wilson. Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1994, 10-11.