Freedom's Journal: The First African-American Newspaper
On March 16, 1827, Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm published the inaugural issue of Freedom's Journal, the first African American newspaper in the United States. The newspaper, Cornish and Russwurm informed their readers, was designed to address a particularly troubling gap in the contemporary American literary marketplace. Although 1820s America boasted a diverse, almost dizzying assortment of periodical literature, there was still no newspaper explicitly created by, and for, free African Americans. "We wish," Cornish and Russwurm wrote in their debut issue, "to plead our cause. Too long have others spoken for us" (13). In her new monograph, Jacqueline Bacon examines Cornish and Russwurm's efforts to create a forum in which African Americans could "speak for themselves," demonstrating the significant impact Freedom's Journal had on the development of an independent black print culture, and the evolution of African American rhetoric and ideologies about slavery, civil rights, and self-determination in the early republic.
Freedom's Journal, Bacon argues, constituted the beginnings of a truly independent black press, in which African Americans could forge community connections, construct new rhetorics about freedom and slavery, and "contribute to discussions and debates about issues important to them" (8). In the often viciously racist, white-controlled print culture of the early republic, Freedom's Journal was a vitally important new site for community cohesion, offering black business owners a place to advertise [End Page 737] their businesses, self-help and charitable organizations a venue in which to publicize their activities, and authors a new site in which to publish their literary work. It fostered African Americans' civic consciousness, publishing pieces that encouraged black men to educate themselves about, and work to assert, their voting rights, and highlighted the many obstacles facing African Americans seeking to claim their civil rights in America's (ostensibly free) society. Recognizing the close ties between literacy and citizenship, Freedom's Journal's editors and contributors encouraged African American women and men to pursue their educations, join literary societies, and sharpen their rhetorical skills by writing pieces for the newspaper's pages.
In an era in which the majority of newspapers took fierce partisan stands in favor of one particular cause or party, Freedom's Journal was unique, Bacon affirms, in that it opened its pages to a truly diverse assortment of voices and views. Although the paper was staunchly anticolonizationist for most of its existence, for example, its editors nonetheless published numerous pieces in favor of colonization, offering readers the opportunity to weigh the merits of both sides of this and many other arguments. Even after Russwurm (who served as the paper's sole editor after Cornish's resignation in September 1827) adopted the colonizationist cause, he continued to print pieces critiquing the movement until the paper's demise, and his departure for Liberia, in 1829.
In the first section of her monograph, Bacon skillfully situates Freedom's Journal in the political, social, and cultural context from which the paper emerged, concisely yet thoroughly discussing the development of free black communities in northern cities in the years between the Revolution and the emergence of Freedom's Journal. While the 1820s are justly seen as a low point in American race relations, with free African Americans facing increasing mob violence and organizations such as the American Colonization Society emerging and flourishing, Bacon cautions historians against depicting Freedom's Journal's emergence primarily as a reaction to an undeniably racist society and print culture. Although Freedom's Journal provided an important forum in which to combat such racism, the newspaper, Bacon stresses, was not created primarily in response to racist attacks, but rather to promote civic education and empowerment, to foster racial pride, and to encourage community unity.
Having provided a brief but detailed overview of Freedom's Journal's historical context and publication history, Bacon embarks on five chapters [End Page 738] that examine the content of the paper in depth, considering the issues of self-help, gender roles, contemporary perceptions of Africa and Haiti, colonization, and antislavery. Each of these chapters provides an excellent summary of the fierce debates that surrounded these issues during the 1820s and the complex ways in which Freedom's Journal's editors and contributors entered into, and profoundly shaped, these discussions. Bacon also thoughtfully engages the vast historiography on these disparate topics, offering skillfully argued challenges to existing historical narratives surrounding African American life and activism. She ably refutes the still-persistent notions that antislavery rhetoric and the radical abolitionist movement emerged during the early 1830s, that African Americans' efforts toward self-help were essentially and fundamentally assimilationist, and that African American notions of both masculinity and femininity were determined by white conceptions of gender identity. Bacon's meticulous and astute readings of Freedom's Journal's letters, editorials, poems, and stories challenge historians to rethink their lingering tendencies to describe African American print culture and activism as reactive to, and dependent upon, white actions, rather than as self-determined and self-initiated.
In her work's third and final section, Bacon discusses the careers of Russwurm and Cornish, in Liberia and the United States, respectively, after Freedom's Journal ceased publication in 1829, and makes the case for the profound and lasting impact Freedom's Journal had on American society and print culture. David Walker's Appeal, she maintains in one of the book's most intriguing and provocative arguments, was quite literally made possible by his work as an agent for Freedom's Journal. Not only did Walker make important connections and contacts during his time as one of the newspaper's agents, Bacon affirms, but the ideas that he encountered in Freedom's Journal served as a bedrock for the Appeal's arguments. Bacon also makes a persuasive case that subsequent African American periodicals (including The Colored American, also edited by Cornish, and Frederick Douglass's newspapers) owed their very existence to Freedom's Journal. The newspaper's insistence on the need for an independent black voice in America's white-dominated print media, Bacon demonstrates, inspired many subsequent generations of writers, editors, and activists to refuse to let their words be in any way edited, shaped, or controlled by others; to let anyone, as Cornish and Russwurm phrased it in 1827, "speak for us." Bacon's compellingly written and insightful volume should restore this significant and influential [End Page 739] periodical to its proper place in histories about African Americans' struggles for emancipation and civil rights and the development of a uniquely African American print culture in the early republic United States.
Holly M. Kent is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Lehigh University. Her dissertation focuses on women's antislavery fiction in the early republic and antebellum United States.