Courtesy Library of Congress

The Jim Crow-era Black press: Of and for its readership

by Carrie Teresa

“The editors and readers of the Negro press have an unusual unity of purpose: all Negros, in varying degrees, object to racial discrimination,” wrote the Chicago Defender’s long-time contributor Metz Lochard in his unpublished manuscript on the history of black press newspapers. “The editors are sure to hit a responsive chord of common interest in all their news and editorials, because all the items are angled to the subject of the race.”[1] The term “black press” (updated to be inclusive rather than pejorative) refers to a disparate collection of regional and national newspapers dating back to the antebellum period that were written by and for black Americans. Much like “black Twitter” of today, the membership of this group had little in common except for their shared interest in civil rights advocacy. And like black Twitter, the members of the black press were an amalgamation of professional journalists, citizen journalists, influencers, pundits, and everyday readers who all shared a stake in the promotion of civil rights, reporting “race beat” news, and using their editorial voices to speak truth to power on the experience of racism.

Early black press newspapers, such as Samuel Cornish and John B. Russworm’s Freedom’s Journal (1827–1829) and Frederick Douglass’s North Star (1847–1851), carried information about the achievements of freemen in the North, ran editorials promoting the abolishment of slavery, and offered black communities both in bondage and free a public voice to “plead their own cause.”[2] These early newspaper publishers recognized the need for a forum in which blacks could officially condemn misrepresentation in the form of rumors, stereotypes, and unfounded opinions of their race. After the Civil War ended, a new crop of newspapers were established to report on civic life, including education, politics, and media and the arts as newly freed blacks began to settle in communities in the North, South, and Midwest. The Baltimore Afro-American, Cleveland Gazette, Philadelphia Tribune, New York Age, and Savannah Tribune emerged in the late 1800s and, despite early financial instability, survived due to the large numbers of newly freed black citizens migrating to the cities in which they published. By 1910 the influential New York Amsterdam News, Chicago Defender, and Pittsburgh Courier also commenced publication.

These newspapers adopted their predecessors’ commitment to advocating for racial justice as public segregation practices, political disenfranchisement, and lynching violence haunted freed blacks around the country. In the August 25, 1883 issue of the Cleveland Gazette, one writer proclaimed, “We want absolute impartiality in newspaper treatment, and when we fail to get it from white papers we forthwith go to publishing and editing newspapers ourselves—hence the Globe, the Recorder, and other papers published to proclaim the wrongs, and demand redress for the people.”[3] Jim Crow-era black press newspapers advocated for black communities by publishing stories that emphasized racial pride, self-help, and community cohesiveness. They published stories that challenged prevailing Jim Crow legislative and judicial practices, endorsed political candidates for office, investigated lynching, charted the migration of blacks from south to north, and supported black-owned business and social institutions.

These newspapers borrowed newsgathering and reporting conventions from the mainstream press, but transformed them to speak to the unique circumstances of their readers. By the early 1920s urban black press newspapers borrowed sensational reporting tactics from the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to drive home the horrors of racialized violence. Sensationalism’s key features—strong language, bold headlines, and the use of visuals—conveyed to readers the horrors of “lynch law.” “The Negro press continually focuses nation-wide attention on the discriminations and injustices of the American caste system,” pointed out Metz Lochard. “And these discriminations are factual, specific, and horrible. They happen every day. It is sensational news; and the Negro press treats it as such.”[4]

Despite the fact that many black press newspapers shared in common a mission of advocacy, there was no such thing as a “typical” black press publication. In fact, much of the content in these newspapers had to do with the details of everyday life and goings-on of the individual communities they served. Church news, profiles of prominent community members, marriage, birth and death announcements, local sports victories, and celebrity gossip graced the pages of these newspapers alongside calls for racial justice. News content varied widely depending on who owned the publication, where it was published, its operating budget, and newsgathering practices.

As would be the case with any other publication, the editorial missions of black press newspapers were heavily influenced by the vision of who owned and financially supported them. Newspapers that were controlled by powerful community churches reflected their conservative values and chilled open discussion of progressive issues, especially as they related to evolving social and romantic relations between black men and women during the 1920s. Reverend William Alexander of Sharon Baptist Church, Reverend George F. Bragg Jr. of St. James Episcopal Church, and John H. Murphy Sr., Sunday school teacher at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church joined forces in 1892 to create the Afro-American newspaper with the intention of promoting racial uplift by encouraging readers to become active parishioners. Other newspapers were financially supported by black civic and political leaders who sometimes used them as propaganda vehicles. Booker T. Washington’s “Tuskegee Machine” pressured editors to align with Washington’s political views by withholding advertising revenue and secretly funding newsroom operations. Washington would even appear as a “guest contributor” to promote Tuskegee projects.[5] For many newspapers struggling to survive on subscription fees and advertising revenue exclusively culled from underserved black communities, true editorial independence was elusive. Rather, many were little more than mouthpieces for the powerful community forces that financially supported them.

The most financially successful black newspapers were published in Great Migration cities—cities with a large population of black migrants who had escaped South to North after the Civil War ended in search of increased employment opportunities and a respite from racial antagonisms. Though the black press dates back to the antebellum period, many of the most iconic legacy news institutions were founded between 1890 and 1920, including the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Philadelphia Tribune, and Baltimore Afro-American. These urban weeklies of the northeast and Midwest served an essential proscriptive function in metropolitan areas that, as a result of northern migration, had a growing local readership that hoped to plant permanent roots in their new cities. The resettlement of southern blacks to northern cities around the mid- to late-1910s emphasized the different conceptions of propriety that existed between northern, urban, middle-class blacks and southern, rural, poor migrants. Black leaders, including editors and publishers, began to circumscribe to black citizens appropriate, or “respectable,” ways to act in public and in private.[6] The Chicago Defender published a weekly column of public “dos” and “don’ts” for newly arrived residents. It discouraged unseemly behaviors such as gum chewing, loud talking, wearing bright colors, going to the nickelodeon theatre, listening to jazz music, and a host of other activities. To survive in their new cities, black migrants constantly turned to their local black press newspapers for advice.

Local identities, experiences, and cultures influenced the quantity, volume, and tone of news coverage, and there were marked differences in the ways in which, for example, newspapers in the North and the South employed civil rights rhetoric. Though southern black-centered journalism shared the advocacy mission of their northern counterparts, these newsrooms could not ignore the grim consequences of challenging white supremacy in areas where whites lamented the loss of the antebellum southern way of life and viewed themselves as victims of an unjust war. White mobs often threatened or attacked black journalists who printed exposés on racial injustices. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was run out of town in 1892 when her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, reported on a triple lynching. And Georgia publications the Savannah Tribune and Atlanta Daily World were cautious when it came to confronting controversial stories in their own communities.[7]

Despite their popularity, many newspapers faced issues of low circulations and had trouble securing advertisers, which meant constant financial insecurity. The idea of a “high” or “respectable” circulation fluctuated. For example, prior to 1910, figures were generally much lower than twenty years later based on illiteracy rates and the ability of the average black citizen to afford a newspaper subscription. A typical “respectable” circulation circa 1910 would have been around 3,000 copies (which was the Afro-American’s circulation during that period). By the 1920s, newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier were selling well into the six figures.

It was typical for copies of the local newspaper to be shared among several members of the community or read aloud informally in public places, such as church gatherings or other social events. Therefore, actual readership numbers may be triple or even quadruple the circulation figures recorded. It was not unusual for newspapers to make specific appeals to readers to either pay their subscription fees (which the Afro-American did regularly on their front page) or to patronize certain businesses that advertised in their pages. Those most likely to fund the newspapers through subscription —black working-class readers—had little cash to spend on such luxuries while middle-class black readers sometimes snubbed black press newspapers, which at the time were typically short (four-to-eight pages in length) and reprinted (often without permission) news from other sources. In 1910 when W. E. B. Du Bois took the editorial helm of the Crisis, the NAACP’s official monthly magazine, he reportedly designed the publication in contrast to what he considered to be the poor quality of many black weekly newspapers. Though some members of the black elite bristled at the sometimes haphazard reporting and design of black press newspapers, many black Americans treated these newspapers as their main source of information on their communities, and reading them was empowering.

Black press newspapers built institutional reputations through their reliance on a variety of news sources including the mainstream press, other black press newspapers, Pullman porters, the Associated Negro Press, guest correspondents and columnists, and readers. Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott paid Pullman porters to bundle and carry copies of the newspaper onto their southbound trains. Porters, who had physical access to politicians, celebrities, and other public figures by virtue of serving them on the expensive trains on which they rode, provided the Defender with story leads and gossip. In exchange, the Defender provided the porters with flattering coverage; many porters even contributed content to the newspaper.[8] Soon, the Pittsburgh Courier also adopted this newsgathering and distribution model.

The crowd-sourced nature of newsgathering went beyond the adoption of the Defender’s porters scheme. By the mid-1920s, newspapers that could afford to do so began to subscribe to Claude Barnett’s Associated Negro Press wire service, which relied on “executive correspondents” in areas with concentrated black populations. These correspondents were not trained journalists; rather, they were citizens whom Barnett and his five-person skeleton staff considered “in the know.”[9] Local community leaders from politicians to clergy to local business owners also contributed content on a regular basis. It was not uncommon for popular race leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and others to publish news stories in black press newspapers. Literary authors, performers, and celebrities also contributed. Famed actor Stepin Fetchit published a column in the Chicago Defender using his real name, Lincoln Perry, as the byline to report on the film industry’s treatment of black actors, and disgraced heavyweight champion Jack Johnson tried out a second career as a sportswriter. The most prolific contributors, though, were the readers, who sometimes contributed stories in the absence of a byline, writing in the evenings after work, as a second (or third) job, or contributing to the Letters to the Editor sections that sometimes took up entire centerspreads of weekly editions.

Black press newspapers have been in financial decline since the civil rights movement garnered national attention in the 1960s. As boycotts and sit-ins captured the attention of the nation, mainstream news institutions that had previously trafficked in segregated newsrooms began to hire away prominent black press journalists who could gain behind-the-scenes access to protesters.[10] Nowadays, black newspapers and magazines cater to small, niche audiences. The Defender and the Courier boast only a fraction of the readership they once did, and legacy magazines Ebony and Jet are tied up in ownership upheavals that threaten the future of both of them.[11] Increasingly, budding journalists of color have migrated towards mainstream publications, though newsrooms continue to be dominated by white leadership and white editorial voices. To wit, journalistic voices that belong to people of color become chilled—there are very few mainstream publications with representative numbers of black or brown journalists, editors, or photographers. Black-centered networks, most notably Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) and Black Entertainment Television (BET), are owned by media conglomerates that hardly have a vested interest in racial activism. Advertisers have found new ways to reach black audiences and media conglomeration has pushed independent black-centered media companies to the fringes.

Black Twitter, the unofficial sector of the popular social media network that has designed itself around promoting black voices through retweeting, favoriting, and following prominent black activists and their allies, has become a powerful watchdog over American mainstream media. “Black Twitter is impossible to ignore,” pointed out LA Times journalist Dexter Thomas. “If a reporter tries to do so, Black Twitter will notice —and correct them.”[12] As decentralized and as citizen-focused as the black press was, black Twitter operates as space to promote and share news that caters to audiences of color and their allies and sheds light on issues that affect communities of color around the country that might be ignored or misrepresented by mainstream voices.

Our news is supposed to reflect our shared cultural values; these days, those values are filtered through the interests of large media companies more invested in their bottom lines than in what democracy needs to function. Historical black press newspapers offer a different template for journalists, activists, and readers today to consider. These newspapers were of and for their readership—giving them not only what they wanted, but what they needed, at a time (different from today, but not so different) when the fight for a more just and equitable society was crucial for America’s survival.

Author

Carrie Teresa is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Niagara University. Her work on the black press has appeared in American Journalism and American Periodicals. Her first book, Looking at the Stars: Black Celebrity Journalism in Jim Crow America, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019.

Notes

[1]Metz Lochard, “The Negro and the white press,” manuscript, p. 3 (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.).

[2]Lionel C. Barrow Jr., “‘Our Own Cause’: Freedom’s Journal and the Beginnings of the Black Press” in Media Voices: An Historical Perspective, ed. Jean Folkerts (1992), 54–60.

[3]“Why we publish the Gazette,” Cleveland Gazette, Aug. 25, 1883, p. 1.

[4]Lochard, “The Negro and the white press,” 2.

[5]Clint C. Wilson II, Black Journalists in Paradox: Historical Perspectives and Current Dilemmas (1991).

[6]Davarian L. Baldwin, “Our Newcomers to the City: The Great Migration and Making of Modern Mass Culture,” in Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890–1930, ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage (2011), 172; Felecia G. Jones Ross, “Preserving the Community: Cleveland Black Papers’ Response to the Great Migration,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 71 (Sept. 1994), 531–39.

[7]Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson II, A History of the Black Press (1997), 132.

[8]Allissa V. Richardson, “The Platform: How Pullman Porters Used Railways to Engage in Networked Journalism,” Journalism Studies, 17 (June 2016), 398–414.

[9]Lawrence D. Hogan, A Black National News Service: The Associated Negro Press and Claude Barnett, 1919–1945 (1984), 57–87; Richard Beard and Cyril E. Zoerner, “The Associated Negro Press: Its Founding, Ascendancy, and Demise,” Journalism Quarterly, (Spring 1969), 47–52.

[10]Patrick S. Washburn, The African-American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom (2006), 197–206.

[11]Sydney Ember and Nicholas Fandos, “Pillars of Black Media, Once Vibrant, Now Fighting for Survival,” New York Times, July 2, 2016, p. 1, 16N.

[12]Dexter Thomas, “When Kanye West told George Bush that Black Lives Matter,” LA Times, Aug. 28, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/posts/la-et-ms-kanye-west-katrina-anniversary-george-bush-black-lives-matter-20150827-htmlstory.html.