- “A Traitor to His Brethren”?John Brown Russwurm and the Liberia Herald
As cofounder and editor of Freedom’s Journal, the first known African American newspaper, John Brown Russwurm occupies a significant place in the history of black periodicals. Russwurm played a pivotal role, according to Timothy Patrick McCarthy, in “the creation of a new print medium designed to galvanize the black community by representing a more unified political voice based on black interests and opinions.”1 As they noted in the paper’s prospectus, Russwurm and his partner Samuel Cornish envisioned Freedom’s Journal as a forum “through which a single voice may be heard, in defence of five hundred thousand free people of colour.”2 In addition to advocating for abolition and promoting black literacy, that collective public voice also spoke out strongly against the efforts of the American Colonization Society (ACS) to resettle free and manumitted black Americans in Liberia. When Russwurm resigned from Freedom’s Journal in 1829 to go to Liberia and began editing the Liberia Herald shortly after settling in the colony, his decision thus struck a dissonant chord for many of his associates in America. Recent work by Winston James and Sandra Sandiford Young points to Russwurm’s earlier plans to emigrate to Haiti, his growing frustration with limited opportunities for free blacks in America, and his transnational framework for thinking about black nationality as factors that influenced his eventual embrace of Liberian colonization.3 However, no historical evidence reveals a specific event that prompted his reversal of opinion about the ACS. What is clear is that once in Liberia, Russwurm sought to use the Herald to persuade black and white readers within and outside the United States that “there is no other home for the man of color . . . than Africa.”4 Yet to Cornish and others associated with Freedom’s Journal, including David Walker, his decision to go to Liberia represented a betrayal and his new publication an obstacle for black communities demanding respect and equality at home in the United States. Indeed, because Russwurm spoke out in the [End Page 112] Herald on behalf of Liberia and the ACS, both Cornish and Walker believed he “should be considered a traitor to his brethren.”5
While many scholars have examined Russwurm’s role at Freedom’s Journal and the angry response from free African Americans regarding his embrace of colonization, few have followed him across the Atlantic to consider his nearly five years editing the Liberia Herald.6 Amos J. Beyan considers Russwurm’s later role in “American civilizing efforts” in Africa, particularly as governor of Maryland in Liberia, a separate colony established in 1834 by the Maryland State Colonization Society.7 Winston James, Russwurm’s most recent biographer, carefully reconstructs his experiences in Liberia, including his work at the Herald, to claim Russwurm as a “Pan-Africanist pioneer.”8 And in collecting and editing his writings in Freedom’s Journal, the Liberia Herald, and elsewhere, James presents Russwurm as a formidable black Atlantic author. However, the exchanges Russwurm maintained with different American periodical editors and readers, as well as his shrewd reprinting from periodicals he received in Liberia, illustrate his role as a black Atlantic editor. Moreover, the largely unexamined reception of the Liberia Herald in the U.S. press reveals how the paper became a flashpoint in emergent divisions between colonizationists and abolitionists in the early 1830s. Explicitly connected to an organization publicly denounced by most African Americans, yet edited and printed by black colonists from the United States, the Liberia Herald was alternately repudiated and embraced as a black periodical.
In this essay, I consider Russwurm’s editing of the Herald and the paper’s uneven reception in the United States to highlight transatlantic debates about race, nation, and black periodical print culture in the 1830s. I argue that these debates disclose the challenges of maintaining political and cultural unity—“a single voice”—among African diasporic communities throughout the Atlantic world. Recent work by Sara Johnson and Alpen Razi on the transatlantic black press in the 1830s stresses efforts among editors in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe to develop print networks as a means...