The black press is a critical—but often ignored—aspect of African American history and culture. Along with churches, political and service organizations, cultural institutions, and schools and universities, the black press has been central to community formation, protest and advocacy, education and literacy, and economic self-sufficiency. Since the earliest known black-owned and published newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was founded in the 1827, the black press has provided a public sphere for an aggrieved community barred from mainstream channels of discourse. These publications disseminated African Americans’ ideas, accomplishments, and cultural products within their communities and to the rest of the world. The black press did not always follow the transformation of the mainstream press from a strictly partisan institution to a mass medium governed by ideals of objectivity. African American journalism has played a dual role, serving as of purveyors of news and information and as agents of social change. The black press has always been a source of black American political power, and even among the most commercial ventures, it is a defender of shared values and interests. The story of these institutions is one of ever-present challenges—to secure financial resources and to fend off public and private efforts to silence or control them. Many of the most influential figures in African American history and thought including scholars, activists, entrepreneurs, religious leaders, novelists, and poets circulated through the black press as editors, publishers, artists, and correspondents. For the purposes of this essay, the black press is defined as daily and weekly newspapers and magazines published by and for African Americans. The unifying feature of the periodicals discussed in this resource guide is an emphasis on news and information; their primary content is journalism and critical commentary rather than arts and entertainment. This is a loose definition, at best—much of the black press regularly publishes literary and artistic production, and fashion magazines may include news and interviews, for example. Overlaps in form and content have characterized black print culture from pamphlets and broadsides in the 19th century to the blogs and online journals of the Internet age. This discussion may gesture to some of these forms, but this is a review of scholarship that is concerned with the black press as journalism.
To conduct research on the black press requires knowledge of African American history, politics, and culture, as well as an understanding of the development of the periodical press as an institution. This is a subaltern history—the story of a minoritized and underrepresented community—and also a national history. Newspapers and print culture were central to the founding of the early republic and freedom of the press is constitutive of the American creed. General studies of the black press have often highlighted the contradictions between the constitutional principles of free speech and the overwhelming struggle of African Americans to be heard through the printed word. There have been woefully few published overviews of the black press, and most tend to lack engagement with the broader scholarship in African American history and culture. The early texts were often compensatory—determined to insert the black press into history and identify unsung heroes. Some of the earliest investigations of the black press serve researchers best as primary sources. For example, Penn 1969 (The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, first published 1891), by an African American educator and journalist, compiled what may be the earliest history on the topic. This book is a significant and influential achievement, given how little had been written on the subject previously. Penn proclaimed that the black press had been “proven a power in the promotion of truth, justice and equal rights for an oppressed people” (p. 13). Penn was both an active participant and booster, and his was a celebratory project that recorded the emergence of an institution he helped to build. The work remains a touchstone as both a voice from the era and an indispensable archive of 19th-century black journalism. Bullock 1981 is an early inventory of periodicals often ignored in the analysis of the black press. These monthly or occasional magazines began in 1830s with an explicit goal of racial uplift. During Reconstruction the black periodical press was dormant, but in the troubled period leading up to the 20th century, influential periodicals like The Colored American and the Voice of the Negro were in the forefront of black protest. As the Great Migration began to pull African Americans away from the rural South in the era of Jim Crow, the numbers of black newspapers and periodicals exploded along with the urban black population. Early observers of this phenomenon stumbled upon the black press and deemed it a critical resource. Kerlin 1968 (first published 1919), is an early investigation of the black press, by a white English professor, minister, and civil rights advocate. This work is more an inventory than analysis, as it revealed the breadth of print culture in black communities. Detweiler 1968 (first published 1922) is a more thorough catalogue and analysis of over five hundred publications produced by African Americans during the first decades of the 20th century, written by a sociologist and student of Robert Park at the University of Chicago. Detweiler underscored the invisibility of the black press when he noted that “until recently the existence of such a press has been virtually unknown to the white group” (p. 2). In the last decades of the 20th century, the black press emerged anew as a subject of historical interest. Wolseley 1990 (first published in 1971) outlined the characteristics that defined the black press, including readership, ownership, and whether the publication had an explicit mandate to serve African Americans’ interests. Pride and Wilson 1997 is a compendia of black newspapers, including biographies of journalists and anecdotes of key publications. Washburn 2006 does not intend to be comprehensive, and it persuasively argues that black newspapers were the foundation for every episode of the black freedom struggle.
Bullock, Penelope L. The Afro-American Periodical Press, 1838–1909. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Provides a comprehensive, richly detailed discussion of periodicals that paralleled their newspaper counterparts in the antebellum, Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras.
Detweiler, Frederick G. The Negro Press in the United States. College Park, MD: McGrath, 1968.
First published in 1922, this study examines the political and rhetorical strategies of black newspapers from their founding to the aftermath of World War I, including the radical journals of Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. It includes community data and analysis of newspaper content. Detweiler saw protest as critical to the black press agenda in the early 20th century.
Kerlin, Robert T. The Voice of the Negro. New York: Arno, 1968.
Written in 1919. Kerlin argued for the importance of recognizing the black press as a vital part of the African American community’s economic and social framework. His analysis found numerous papers that advocated for black self-defense and retaliation against the rise in racial violence and discrimination in that era.
Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press and Its Editors. New York: Arno, 1969.
This book is generally recognized as the first study of the black press. Written in 1891, it highlights the struggles of early black editors and publishers to establish and maintain a black print culture.
Pride, Armistead S., and Clint C. Wilson Jr. A History of the Black Press. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1997.
A broad and somewhat superficial overview of key newspapers, editors, and journalists from the first black newspaper through the 1990s; includes background on the National Newspaper Publishers Association and a discussion of threats to the black press’s survival.
Washburn, Patrick S. The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006.
This recent study of the black press is an accessibly written narrative history of selective newspapers from the founding of Freedom’s Journal in 1827 to the civil rights era. Washburn highlights the black press’s response to key historical episodes, such as the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, and government surveillance and harassment between the world wars.
Wolseley, Roland E. The Black Press, U.S.A. 2d ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.
This study, initially conducted in the 1970s, was for many decades the primary text on the subject. Despite some errors in fact, its coverage of newspapers, magazines, and influential black journalists makes this a useful—if not critical—resource.
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