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  • Black and White Print:Cross-Racial Strategies of Class Solidarity in Mechanics' Free Press and Freedom's Journal
  • Timothy Helwig (bio)

Exposés of depraved crimes committed under the cover of darkness; lurid descriptions of violent, bone-smashing, brain-splattering murders; titillating accounts of lascivious rakes stalking and deflowering meek, virgin seamstresses: all of these sensational tropes are commonplace devices by which the subversive city-mysteries of the 1840s and 1850s appealed to their mass readership and mounted their artisan republican critique of "upper ten-dom," an appeal to a working-class solidarity that would not materialize until the turn of the century.1 The sensational crime reporting of the penny press was a primary influence on city-mysteries' Gothic excesses, and David S. Reynolds points to the founding of the earliest penny papers as a watershed moment in the development of subversive literature.2 Yet even before cheap dailies of the 1830s challenged the elite six-penny papers that were run by the dominant political parties and that catered to the mercantile class, one of the earliest labor newspapers and the nation's first black newspaper articulated the interests of its respective, disenfranchised readers through class-accented sensationalism.

To date, many scholars of antebellum popular print culture have studied early black newspapers and the diffuse products of the penny press separately, coming to a consensus that the working-class sympathies in both sets of newspapers are either disorganized or inconsequential. Yet when we isolate the class-inflected discourses of sensationalism, artisan republicanism, and nativism that appear among prominent labor newspapers and black newspapers, evidence of shared strategies of class protest emerges among the newspapers and attests to the potential of cross-racial sympathy among the multi-racial working classes of the antebellum period. Moreover, a comparative analysis of the cross-racial strategies of class protest complicates the prevailing views that the early black press catered primarily to the [End Page 117] black middle-class and that the popular press espoused largely reactionary racial politics. I will show how early black newspapers expressed pragmatic concern for the rights of working-class free blacks through strategies that resonated with the white labor movement and that sought to impress upon working-class whites the expediency of cross-racial class solidarity. Through the use of subversive sensationalism, direct appeals against chattel slavery, and both artisan republican and nativist rhetoric, the labor paper Mechanics' Free Press and the black paper Freedom's Journal engage in appeals to class solidarity much earlier than has previously been acknowledged.

When technological developments such as the steam press and the expansion of a literate public revolutionized the nation's print culture during the antebellum period, cheap penny papers and weekly story papers proliferated. Between the inaugural issue of Benjamin Day's penny paper the New York Sun in 1833 and the year 1840, the number of daily papers in the United States more than doubled from 65 to 138.3 By 1850, New York alone boasted fourteen daily papers with a total circulation of at least 150,000.4 Promoted as "democratic" alternatives to the elite six-penny newspapers under the control of professional political parties, penny papers appealed to their mass readership with sensational crime news, exposés of hidden corruption among "respectable" public officials, and serialized fiction that blended Gothic imagery with artisan republican rhetoric. Developing simultaneously, though haltingly, black newspapers—edited by African Americans and intended primarily for African-American readers—flourished in northeastern cities and in the Midwest during the antebellum period. Todd Vogel estimates there may have been as many as one hundred black newspapers in print between 1827 and 1855.5 Black newspapers engaged social questions specific to their audience, such as the abolition of chattel slavery and voting suffrage; provided inspiration and practical advice for the social and economic uplift of the African-American race; and, challenging the racist caricatures found in the mainstream press, took pride in offering unbiased and realistic representations of free and enslaved blacks.

Despite the prevailing critical perception that products of the class-inflected labor and penny presses and early black newspapers had few shared interests and endured a generally antagonistic relationship, these diverse print sources...


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pp. 117-135
Launched on MUSE
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