Black History Month Series

Freedom’s Journal, The United State’s First Black Owned Newspaper

Representation is an important aspect of the society that one is apart of. If a person within a society does feels misrepresented, it’s their duty to offer an alternative form of representation for themselves and others like them. Prior to the 17th century there were no Black news outlets in the United States. Meaning that although there were millions of Blacks, slave and free, living in the county there was no form of representation that served their community. It wasn’t until 1827 that the first copy of the Freedom’s Journal was published, the very first African American owned newspaper in the United States. The publication was a weekly four column spread released every Friday. The paper was founded by free born African Americans, John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish in New York City.
Russwurm understood the power that media had to reenforce destructive stereotypes on marginalized, powerless communities like Blacks in America. A problem I’d argue still exists today with Black people owning less than 1% of television networks, the most popular form of media consumption today. Russwurm was born in Jamaica and later attended Bowdoin College in Maine, by his graduation he was only the second African American in the United States to earn a college degree. After his graduation he moved to New York where he met Samuel Cornish.
Samuel Cornish was born in Delaware to free parents. After graduating from the Free African School in Philadelphia he went to seminary school to become a Presbyterian Minister and was ordained in 1822 and later moved to New York City. In New York he founded the first Black Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He and Russwurm became journalists after being tired of their perspectives being marginalized by a white dominated world. In their fist issue they stated, “We wish to plead our own cause.  Too long have others spoken for us.  Too long have the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things that concern us dearly…” the paper was strongly abolitionist while also providing black readers with pride about themselves and their communities. The paper also worked to educate white readers about Blacks and their opinions. The paper was a printed community center, publishing local and worldwide news, editorials, biographies, births and deaths in the local African American community, and advertisements.
The journal worked to empower the black community by also encouraging members to learn to read and write, both Russwurm and Cornish believed that literacy and intellectual development were key to liberation among African Americans. The subscription was $3/year, equivalent to about $34 today. During it’s peak the Freedom’s Journal circulated in 11 states as well as in the District of Columbia, Haiti, Europe and Canada.
Difference in views between Russwurm and Cornish on Blacks colonization of Africa led to Cornish’s resignation, leaving Russwurm to be the sole editor of the paper. Russwurm promoted African Americans colonization, a movement led by the American Colonization Society which provided Blacks with the opportunity of transporting their families back to Africa. This stance in the paper led to a decline of subscribers, forcing the cease of the circulation of the publication in March 1829. Russwurm immigrated to Liberia, a region in West Africa that received those transported from America by the American Colonization Society, soon after. Cornish later served as editor and writer of other papers including the Colored American and The Colonization Scheme Considered.
It is interesting to see how the choice wether or not to encourage Blacks colonization in Africa is what led to the demise of a publication that was building up African American communities in the states. I asked myself, “Couldn’t the men have just focused on another topic in the publication?” especially after seeing how subscriptions decreased dramatically thereafter. Maybe the Freedom’s Journal could have printed for a few more years, but regardless of the newspaper’s lifespan it served a unique purpose in Black History by providing Blacks with a source of representation for their views in a white dominated society. This opened the door for Black media to be established and develop. Now Blacks with differing opinions on specific topics could create their own publications that catered to those differences. This added more Black voices to a widening conversation, now not all African Americans had to be lumped up into one paper.
As a media and communications scholar myself, I understand representation as an invaluable aspect of society. For example, children gravitate towards career paths that prop up people that look like them, it makes the choice of a career look attainable. When I was a child I knew that I could own a business because I saw my dad own several. It’s important to use media to connect the dots for those who don’t have that example directly represented in their lives.
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About Amani Sawari

I am a University of Washington alum, Class of 2016. I graduated with my Bachelors Degree in two majors: Media and Communications AND Law, Economics and Public Policy. It's a mouthful but it illustrates how I have a hard time doing only one 'thing'. I am a writer, poet, singer, songwriter and much more. I enjoy sharing my experiences and perspectives with those who are interested and I am a proud member of the black diaspora!
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