Part One of a four-part series.
It can rightfully be stated that until Freedom’s Journal, America’s first African-American newspaper, was launched at No.6 Varick Street in lower Manhattan on March 16, 1827, Black History — for all means and purposes — did not exist in America.
The publication was started by Samuel Eli Cornish, a free black Presbyterian minister born in Delaware and raised in Philadelphia, and John Brown Russwurm, born in Jamaica and the third man of color to earn a college degree in the United States (from Bowdoin College in Maine.)
True, blacks had been mentioned in print in America since 1619 when The White Lion, under Captain John Colyn Jope, brought the first Africans to these shores and advertised them for sale. They were purchased as indentured servants, not slaves, and all became free men after their seven years of service.
However, by the 1700s laws were passed allowing the enslavement of blacks, and from that point on they would continually be mentioned in terms of the auction block or in runaway slave notices for centuries. If they were mentioned by name at all it was by the one name they had been given by their slave masters …Toby, Missy, Buck, or some other sobriquet more fitting a pet than a person.
Indeed, the only records of blacks’ existence in this country up until the launching of the Journal was in the ledgers and books kept by plantation owners, on the same pages listing livestock and other property. It wasn’t until the first black newspapers began to appear in America that any semblance of a recorded black history was chronicled in the United States.
Only the black press reported if a black person was born, lived, died, got married, had children, graduated from school, or participated in any of the other human functions that are so critical to providing individuals and families with a sense of connectedness to their past, their roots, and a vision for who they are and what they hope their children are to become.
The first black publishers knew that a race of people without a sense of history — without a knowledge of who they are, who their forebears were, and from whence they came — had little chance of navigating their way into a successful future.
This, then, is the importance of Black History … and by extension the critical importance of the black press which first chronicled and preserved that history. Although Freedom’s Journal was to last only a few years it opened the journalistic door for other black newspapers to follow in its footsteps soon after.
The world of black folks in America — or the world of the whites that wished to suppress them — would never again be the same due to the black press.