Black History Began With the Black Press – Part 2

Mansfield Frazier Part Two of a continuing series Newspapers of the early Colonial era were circulated through a network of “authorized subscription agents” in various cities around the country. One of the first such agents  was David Walker for Freedom’s Journal. Walker was born a free black in Wilmington, South Carolina in the late eighteenth century and owned a successful clothing store in Boston. After the demise of the New York paper Walker took black publishing to the next level by publishing three editions of his Appeal between September 1829, and June 1830. It has come to be regarded as the first Black Nationalist document authored by a person of color, in which the writer urged slaves to rise up against their slave masters and to “kill or be killed.” While this sentiment had been secretly whispered in slave quarters in various Southern states almost from the very beginning of the pernicious institution, this was the first time anyone had dared to print the words, and it created a firestorm in the country. Walker, more than any other black person of his era, realized the importance of utilizing communications to win the battles he was fighting for his black brothers still in bondage. And much to the consternation of White southerners he managed to get his Appeal circulated far and wide throughout the South. North Carolina was the first of many Southern states to enact sedition laws against the circulation of publications like Appeal. It was the first time, but it would not be the last, that the cry of “sedition” would be used against black publications for spreading the truth and calling for citizens of every race and color to take a strong stand against injustice. It has been estimated that during the period between 1827 and 1855 as many as 100 black newspapers, written for both Blacks and progressive Whites, were published in the United States. In addition to carrying news of milestones in the lives of the local black readers, the newspapers all had one thing in common: They carried uplifting stories of blacks who had became successful through hard work, sobriety, and thriftiness. They served an important function inasmuch as they refuted the idea propagated by White slave owners that menial, backbreaking work for long hours and no pay was the only thing they were fit for. No matter how diligent the overseers were there was always a slave or two on every plantation that had somehow secretly learned to read and the black newspapers were eagerly awaited items around the slave quarters.

Gifted Actor Lincoln Perry, better known as the character Stepin’ Fetchit.

One resistance tactic that supposedly was spread via black newspapers was the practice that became known as “Puttin’ on Old Massa’.” Slaves rightly reasoned that exhibiting hard work, resourcefulness and industry got them no better treatment than being shiftless and lazy, so many of them adopted the tactic of playing dumb to avoid work. They would make such a mess of any thing remotely complicated that the overseer would eventually quit assigning such work to them. This strategy morphed into the character of Stepin’ Fetchit, the bumbling, head scratching, eye-rolling black man portrayed in early films by the gifted actor Lincoln Perry. Unfortunately, some blacks still use this tactic almost 150 years after the demise of slavery to avoid work and thereby severely limit their chances for success in life. Thus the legacy of slavery still lingers over the race. The third successful black newspaper published in America, the Weekly Advocate (which began publishing in January of 1837) was, similar to the first, Freedom’s Journal, published in New York City and was also edited by Samuel Cornish. Within two months the name was changed to the Colored American. Along with other newspapers like the Mirror of Liberty, the Elevator, Freeman’s Advocate, the Palladium of Liberty, and the Herald of Freedomthe steady drumbeat for freedom for slaves and full equality for free blacks was relentless. And then, in 1847, the towering giant, the man who was to become known as The Lion of Anacostia, Frederick Douglass, a former slave who was the most prominent and influential antislavery lecturer and author of his day, began publishing the North Star in Rochester, New York. The newspaper soon had a circulation of over 4,000 readers (a huge number for the day) in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. Taking as its motto “Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren,” the North Star served as a forum not only for abolitionist views, but also supported the feminist movement and the emancipation of other oppressed groups. Douglass published the North Star until June of 1851, when he and Gerrit Smith agreed to merge the North Star with the Liberty Party Paper (based out of Syracuse, New York) to form Frederick Douglass’s Paper.

The North Star merged with The Liberty Party Paper (based out of Syracuse, New York) to form Frederick Douglass’s Paper.