Join me this week as I dive into the history of the Freedom's Journal, the first black owned and operated newspaper in American history.
Started by two free men in 1828, The Freedom's Journal influenced a generation of writers, editors and artists by providing a platform for black voices. For the first time in history, their newspaper was nonpartisan and strove to provide both sides of an argument.
What was the Freedom's Journal? And who were the men behind the pages? Find all of that out and more.
American Newspapers, 1800-1860: City Newspapers. History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library. Illinois Library. (LINK)
American Newspapers, 1800-1860: An Introduction. History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library. Illinois Library. (LINK)
Bacon, Jacqueline. “The History of Freedom’s Journal: A Study in Empowerment and Community.” The Journal of African American History 88, no. 1 (2003): 1–20. https://doi.org/10.2307/3559045.
LEWIS, ADAM. “‘A Traitor to His Brethren’? John Brown Russwurm and the ‘Liberia Herald.’” American Periodicals25, no. 2 (2015): 112–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24589082.
Freedom’s Journal. Volume 1, Number 1. March, 1827. (LINK)
Freedom’s Journal Online Archive. Wisconsin Historical Society. (LINK)
John Brown Russwurm (Bowdin Class of 1826). George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives. Bowdin College. (LINK)
Stirling, Robert. “Samuel Eli Cornish (1795-1858).” BlackPast.org. December 30, 2008. (LINK)
Wilson, Clint C. “Overview of the Past 182 Years of the Black Press.” Black Press History, National Newspaper Publishers Association. (LINK)
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey Peeps, welcome back.
Newspapers and the printed press have existed in the United States as far back as the 1690’s. What started as broadsides to share opinions or correct records, eventually evolving into a heavily partisan press. From the founding of the nation through the 1830’s, most newspapers were affiliated with a certain political faction and acted as the propaganda arm of any one party.
However in the run up to the quote unquote abolitionist movement, two men ventured into the newspaper business and changed not only the news profession, but also influenced the thoughts of and perceptions about black americans.
So this week, I am diving into the history of the Freedom’s Journal. What was it? Who started it? And what were its impacts?
Grab your cup of coffee peeps, let’s do this.
1827. The eve of what is considered the start of the abolitionist movement. Throughout the country, thousands of free black americans lived along with their fellow white citizens and attempted to carve out lives for themselves. Primarily separated from white society despite their status, black americans learned to rely on each other and established their own churches and mutual aid societies to meet their communities' needs.
According to historians, there were roughly 200 different newspapers in circulation around the turn of the 19th century. While a majority of papers were printed weekly and highly partisan, daily newspapers began cropping up throughout the country. This emergence of a daily newspaper was thanks, in part, to the invention of the machine printing press in 1814. No longer a heavily manual process, the printing press and reduced overall costs allowed newspapers to enjoy a much wider circulation. And because of the reduced costs, a number of specialty papers starting cropping up throughout the country. Papers geared towards working men, farmers and immigrants found their way to print. But though it was becoming easier to publish a newspaper, there was a large voice missing from the folds: the voices of black americans.
Seeing a gap and wishing to fill the void for their community, two young free black men went about starting their own paper. John Brown Russwurm, the first black man to graduate from Bowdoin College and Samuel Cornish, originally trained as a minister, wrote out their plans for the paper and sought out gaining financial backing through donations and subscriptions.
Cornish and Russwurm understood the potential power of the press, discussing in their prospectus that a newspaper could be key in improving their communities, writing quote: “experience teaches us that the press is the most economical and convenient method” end quote.
However, no paper is possible without financial backing. So Russwurm and Cornish worked to gather support for their paper, relying on individuals like past episode topic David Walker to help raise money and gather subscriptions. A yearly subscription to the Freedom’s Journal ran $3 and advertisements ran between 25 and 75 cents.
On March 28, 1827 the first edition of The Freedom’s Journal was issued. Owned, edited and operated by Cornish and Russwurm, the Freedom’s Journal was the first newspaper of its kind in American History. While the establishment of The Freedom’s Journal was part of a larger journalistic movement, it was special in that it was the first to be owned and operated by black americans and it worked to provide a venue for black americans to share their own stories, thoughts and opinions. For too long, Russwurm and Cornish felt black americans were made into caricatures, unrepresentative of who they really were. It was this inaccurate portrayal of their community, in part, that prompted the newspaper. In their first issue, the editors explained their reasoning behind the publication, writing quote:
“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrow we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends to discredit any person of color,” end quote.
While some have pointed to its origins as being a method to champion the abolitionist cause, the Freedom Journal was intended to be more than one dimensional. Owners Russwurm and Cornish wanted to ensure that quote: “whatever concerns us as a people, will ever find a ready admission into the Freedom’s Journal,” end quote. While abolition was of course a major source of interest for black americans at the time, it was hardly the only thing they cared about.
Like other americans, black communities were interested in books, politics and national news. All of these topics made their way into the pages of the journal, often written by black americans. For the first time, black writers and artists were being covered as the Journal often reprinted speeches and poems, providing a much wider audience than they’d ever had before.
Cornish and Russwurm were also dedicated to the education of their community, believing it would be the key to freedom for many of those still held in bondage. This dedication to education, especially for younger audiences of the paper, was part of their drive to publish the journal. In one issue, the editors wrote quote: “we shall consider it a part of our duty to recommend to our young readers, such authors as will not only enlarge their stock of useful knowledge, but such as will also serve to stimulate them to higher attainments in science,” end quote.
The Freedom Journal was also different in that it strove to be nonpartisan. As I mentioned at the top of the episode, most newspapers at the time were nothing more than political talking points for any one faction. The Journal, by contrast, tried to report the news in a balanced manner, without favoring one argument over the other. For example, though as a publication they were against the idea of colonization, they often included articles touting its benefits. And for those who may not know, colonization was a proposed solution to the question many americans had at the time - where should freed black americans live once they were no longer slaves.
Supporters of colonization argued that colonies - in places like Liberia or Haiti - should be established and black americans shipped off to develop their own communities. This was a widely supported idea by both white and black americans and the Journal’s stated position against colonization lost them key financial support by several white abolitionists who championed the cause.
And like most newspapers of the time, the Journal struggled to collect their subscriptions and had many clients who continued to receive their paper each week, but never paid their subscription fees. The Journal only continued only thanks to donations from supporters and the hard work of its owners. However, this is not to suggest that the Journal was not popular. On the contrary, the Freedom Journal conservatively held nearly 800 subscribers to their paper. When you consider that copies were shared throughout the country, this number is only the tip of a very large iceberg. The Journal even went international at one point, having agents in London and Canada.
So just who were the two men who decided to start the Journal?
John Brown Russwurm, born in Jamaica in 1799, spent his youth in Canada. His father, a rich white planter, had an affair with Russwurm’s mother, a slave, when he came to Jamaica after completing his education in England. John was accepted as a son and Russwurm lived with his father and wife, Susan Blanchard. Russwurm enrolled into Bowdoin college at the age of twenty-five and, depending on the sources, was either the second or third black man to earn a college degree in the United States. While Russwurm would make enemies and turn heads when he shifted his perspective on the american colonization movement, he was a strong proponent of black education, initially teaching black youth at the Primus Hall School for Black Kids.
The other editor and founder, Samuel Cornish, was born in 1795 in Delaware. In what is unfortunately fairly common for black americans during this time period, his actual birthdate remains unknown, however he was fortunate in that both of his parents were free and therefore he, too, was a free man. He was raised in both Philadelphia and New York - both places with a decent sized free population and originally trained as a presbyterian minister, going so far as to organize the first black presbyterian church in Manhattan.
So while both Russwurm and Cornish benefitted from a background of freedom, they nevertheless leaned into the political fights of the day, including abolition. After just a year, Samuel Cornish announced his resignation from the paper. Some speculate Cornish resigned due to Russwurm’s shifting views on colonization, but historians seem split on this issue as Russwurm’s shift was not all that surprising and Cornish and Russwurm remained friendly even after the partnership of the newspaper dissolved.
Russwurm did eventually announce his support for colonization efforts, which did not go over well in the broader audience of the paper. But just like when the paper came out against colonization, Russwurm made sure to include articles both in support of and against the push for colonization in the Journal. However, readers began to complain about Russwurm’s editing on the newspaper. Beginning in 1828, complaints started to trickle in, criticizing almost every decision Russwurm made for the Journal, prompting him to respond in an editorial.
So why did Russwurm come out in support of colonization efforts? Well, it appears as though he felt that black citizens would never get a fair shake in the United States and he lost hope that conditions would improve. Writing in the Journal, Russwurm said quote, “We consider it mere waste of works to talk of ever enjoying citizenship in this country: it is utterly impossible in the nature of things; all therefore who pant for these, must cast their eyes elsewhere,” end quote.
The final edition of the Freedom Journal was published on March 28, 1829. And though the paper may have only lasted two years, its impacts were felt long after. In reviewing the implications of the Freedom Journal, author Jacqueline Bacon argues quote, “the publication had a significant impact, both in the antebellum period and beyond, influencing African American journalism, the abolitionist movement, and generations of American reformers,” end quote. One of the goals of the paper was the increase of other black owned and edited publications. Of this, Russwurm and Cornish were indeed successful. Phillip Bell established the Colored American in 1837 and of course Frederick Douglass would establish the North Star in 1847.
What happened to the original proprietors of the paper? Russwurm, a firm believer in the fact that black americans would never achieve true equity in the United States, picked up stakes and moved across the Atlantic, setting up shop in the Liberia colony known as Maryland. From his new post, he established his own paper, known as the Liberia Herald which he oversaw from 1830 to 1834. He eventually became Governor of the territory, becoming the first black Governor in 1836. He remained in Liberia, promoting colonization until his death in 1851.
Samuel Cornish, who resigned in 1828 to take a position as an agent for the New York Free American Schools came back to the Freedom Journal in 1829, revising it and attempting to rebrand it as the Rights of All. This relaunch only made it a year. Cornish moved onto editing a third paper, Philip Bell’s The Colored American. He also established the American Anti-Slavery Society, the American Moral Reform Society and the New York City Vigilance Committee, amongst others. He died in Brooklyn in 1858 at the age of 62 or 63.
The Freedom Journal not only influenced black journalism, but the newspaper business overall. After the Journal, more papers became dedicated to being nonpartisan and providing all sides of an argument. It also provided a model for other aspiring newspaper editors to follow, leading to nearly forty black owned newspapers in the run up to the Civil War. It also, for the first time, provided an unedited platform for black americans to express their thoughts, opinions and hopes for the future of the country, something they could only dream of before the Journal’s creation.
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