Each February, we celebrate Black History Month to remember and recognize the important events, people and cultural activities that have shaped our nation.
Through this blog, we will highlight some of the first African-Americans who were bold enough to create change through the power of publishing. People like Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., William Hamilton, David Ruggles, Frederick Douglass and more. These individuals fought against injustice and created a platform for their voices to be heard through the written, printed word. They were some of the first African-American printers and publishers, and they inspired others to make their voice herard in the fight against slavery and racism. They stood for a world where they would be seen as equals and we honor their courage.
Their actions paved the way for a generation to express themselves through journalism, printing and publishing. New newspapers were launched, books were written, and African Americans were admitted into schools and even ran for public office. This Black History month, we honor these contributions to American history as well as to the printing and publishing industries.
African-American Pioneers of Print and Publishing
Rev. Peter Williams, Jr. and William Hamilton
The first African-American newspaper dates back to 1827 and was co-founded by Rev. Peter Williams, Jr., William Hamilton and other free black men living in New York City. The Freedom’s Journal was first printed in March 1827 and it is considered the first African-American news publication. The main objective of The Freedom’s Journal was to combat negative impressions of Africa and African-Americans in the New York Press.
The Freedom’s Journal employed two prominent African-Americans in the community inSamuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm, who are considered the first African-American newspaper editors.
Samuel Cornish was a minister, publisher and journalist as well as a leader of a small free black community. He was highly involved in several groups including being a founding member of the interracial American Anti-Slavery Society. He contributed to The Freedom’s Journal as an editor and writer.
John B. Russwurm was co-editor of The Freedom’s Journal and when Cornish resigned in 1827, was the sole editor. Russwurm promoted the colonization moment through the newspaper and later emigrated to Liberia. He served as Governor of Maryland in Africa from 1836 until his death in 1851. He was a firm believer in African-Americans emigrating to Africa and often promoted it in the newspaper.
The Freedom’s Journal was published weekly as a four-page, four-column newspaper and reached over 300,000 recently freed black men and women living in 11 states including the District of Columbia. It was also distributed to Haiti, Europe and Canada. The newspaper featured:
- Domestic and international news
- Job listings
- Anti-slavery editorials
- Current events
- Biographies of prominent African-Americans
- Birth, wedding and death announcements
At the height of the newspaper, it employed 44 people. The newspaper lasted for two years and through the power of print, Williams and Hamilton were able fight for social reform before the 13th Amendment was passed. Because of their efforts, many other African-American-based newspapers and publications were created in cities across America.
In 1828, the African Journal was published in Philadelphia and the National Philanthropist was published in Boston, with several other publications following. It is because of these two brave individuals that a whole era of African-American publishers and printers were able to establish their own publications to fight against slavery and racial injustice.
Born in 1810, David Ruggles was an African-American abolitionist living in Manhattan, New York and is credited with opening the first African-American bookstore in the United States. Ruggles aided fugitive slaves through the Underground Railroad, including assisting Frederick Douglass on his journey to freedom, and often spoke out about the injustices of slavery in America. He printed several articles on the topic, and was often a victim of crime because of his passionate views.
He began his life in newspapers as a sales agent and contributor fpr The Liberator and The Emancipator, both of which were abolitionist newspapers. After closing his grocery store, Ruggles opened the first African-American owned bookshop. It was located on Lispenard Street near St. John’s park, or what is known as the Tribeca neighborhood today. The bookstore specialized in abolitionist and feminist literature, including works by Maria Stewart.
Ruggles was also a publisher, editor and printer. He edited the The Mirror of Liberty journal, and published pamphlets The Extinguisher and “The Abrogation of the Seventh Commandment.”
His ambition wasn’t only in printing and publishing as he was also secretary of the New York Committee of Vigilance. The organization helped fugitive slaves, opposed slavery and educated enslaved workers in New York about their rights.
Probably the most well-known individual on our list, Frederick Douglass was born in 1889 and was an abolitionist, writer and statesman. He escaped slavery from Maryland in 1838 and wrote several articles depicting what life was like as a slave. These articles were published in prominent African-American newspapers including The Freedom’s Journal. Douglass started his own abolitionist newspaper called the North Star in 1847, which mainly focused on the opposition of American Colonization Society. The organization sought to send free blacks back to Africa instead of allowing them to live as free men in the United States.
Douglass is more known for his multiple autobiographies about his time as a slave, which eventually became nationally renowned. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was a memoir that was published in 1845. It described in great detail Douglass’ life as a slave and is considered to be one of the most influential books of the time. Some believe this accurate depiction of the cruel interactions between slave and slaveholder sparked the abolitionist movement during the late 1800s.
History has shown that literature can create change in society and the same goes for Douglass and his written works. After Narrative was published in 1845, it sold 5,000 copies with almost 30,000 copies sold by 1830. In only three years the book was reprinted nine times with 11,000 copies circulating the United States. It was through his writings that Douglass shaped and shifted public opinion of slaves and owning human property. The funds from the book sales helped Douglass obtain his freedom. Other works that Douglass wrote are My Bondage and My Freedomand Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Throughout his life, Douglass was an active campaigner of equal rights for all, including women and Native Americans. He spoke in public and held several political appointments. He was president of the Freedman’s Saving Bank after the Civil War. The private corporation was created by the U.S. government and was made to aid newly emancipated slaves.
Frederick Douglass’ legacy continues to impact our society and his writings are still relevant today. He would go on to continue his active involvement in social justice during and after the Civil War to help better the lives of African-Americans. This included conferring with Abraham Lincoln during the war and fighting for women’s rights afterwards.
Grafton Tyler Brown
Born in 1841, Grafton Tyler Brown was a painter, lithographer and cartographer and was the first African-American artist to artistically capture the Pacific Northwest and California.
Brown started his career in the print industry when he was only 14 years old. It was during his time as a printer that he learned lithography, a form of printing with oil and water. After moving to San Francisco in the 1860s, he worked as a lithographer and later transitioned from printer to painter in the 1880s. He painted landscapes of Mt. Rainer, Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park. His works of art are held in collections in several museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Power of Publishing
These are just of the few of the African-American leaders and pioneers that positively created change in our world through the power of print and publishing. In the face of adversity, injustice and violence, they set the standard for future generations. Today, we celebrate what these great individuals accomplished.