July 19, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 49
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‘Journal’ details rise, fall of first black paper in U.S.

Kam Williams

“While the Constitution declares that all men are born free and equal, the wise corporation of the city of Washington … see proper to proscribe the rights of a certain portion of the community … Ought such laws to exist? Ought Congress to allow Washington, the spot which, alone of all others should be sacred to the rights of man … to be polluted by the footsteps of a slave? … Many who there plead for the equal rights of man, are the very men who … buy and sell their brethren like beasts of burden.”

— Excerpted from an 1827 editorial by John B. Russwurm (page 88)

Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper ever published in the United States, debuted on March 16, 1827. The short-lived periodical was the brainchild of two black men, Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm. The former was a Presbyterian minister born free in Delaware, while the latter was a mulatto, the college-educated son of a white Jamaican plantation owner and one of his servants.

Although the pair printed the paper in New York City, their ambitious mission, as stated in the inaugural edition, was to reach the “five hundred thousand free people of color” spread across the country.

While Freedom’s Journal would fall far short of that goal and fold in 1829, it nevertheless must be credited with making a seminal contribution to the abolitionist movement by kick-starting a dialogue about the evils of slavery — which would survive the paper’s unfortunate demise.

Cornish and Russwurm were visionaries whose insightful editorials, written in the early 19th century, were far ahead of their time. While it cannot be definitively stated exactly why they created the paper, conventional wisdom, in part disputed here, suggests that the two were initially motivated to counter the daily diatribes of Mordecai Noah, owner of several tabloids, including the New York Enquirer.

They castigated Noah, a Jew who had taken to pumping out hateful pro-slavery propaganda in his publications, for pandering to racists in a way that placed black folks in a very vulnerable state.

In this representative op-ed, Cornish and Russwurm made a futile attempt to appeal to him as a member of an ethnic group that had suffered more than its share of discrimination:

“We should think, if Major Noah were a man of reflection, he would be the last to aggravate the wrongs of the oppressed. Has he forgotten that this is the only country in which the descendants of Abraham sustain a standing equal to that of the African? We should expect him to sympathize with the oppressed of every hue.”

Thanks to Jacqueline Bacon, we now have an in-depth, scholarly analysis of the first African American paper that establishes that there was no monolithic black mindset, but rather often competing attitudes about such prevailing hot-button subjects as the back to Africa movement versus assimilation in the U.S., and gradualism and accommodation versus violent insurrection as the answer to enslavement.

The author, who holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin, is a syndicated journalist whose other progressive, thought-provoking books and articles have covered a wide range of topics, from reparations to rhetoric to religion.

With the exhaustive and painstakingly researched “Freedom’s Journal,” she not only proves herself a gifted historian, but produces an engaging tome that should be an invaluable teaching tool for the ages, touching on more themes than can be satisfactorily addressed in this space.

Don’t be surprised to get goose bumps or even be periodically moved to tears while revisiting the dawn of the black press — many of the issues so eloquently and bravely addressed by Cornish and Russwurm remain cornerstone concerns of vital interest to the African American community today.

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