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  • "We Need a Press—a Press of Our Own"The Black Press beyond Abolition
  • Jim Casey (bio)

The purpose of this essay is to counter a common misunderstanding that conflates the early Black press with the antislavery press. This view has held sway for decades in countless bibliographies and library catalogs, not to mention books, articles, and syllabi.1 The largest bibliography of African American periodicals, for example, includes dozens of white-edited abolitionist newspapers.2 To be sure, the Black men and women who edited antebellum newspapers did fight fiercely for the end of slavery, but they cared about far more. They created a press that dealt with the full range of issues and interests that attended antebellum Black life. The fight to abolish slavery was one piece of a much broader and more complex struggle for Black freedom and justice in the United States.

This shift is less a matter of historiography than historical accuracy. Antebellum Black editors almost always asserted an independence and remit that exceeded the antislavery societies. In columns written to introduce every new publication, editors staked out a vast range of editorial positions and perspectives that catered to their ostensibly free Black readers. These columns touched on many topics, ranging from matters of collective self-defense—against racism, [End Page 117] colonization, and state violence—to concerns for the progress of their communities—education, temperance, civil rights, and Protestant Christianity.3 Black editors used these columns to make an appeal to their prospective readers for the value of papers edited by African Americans. Many argued that Black communities needed newspapers conducted by Black editors. Those appeals, in practice and principle, expand an intellectual history of Black print and media that, while difficult to summarize neatly, offers a number of provocations to rethink the place of newspaper editors and periodical publishing in the nineteenth-century United States.

The history of the early Black press is ready for such a broad reconsideration. The case for disambiguating the Black and antislavery presses may not be widely observed, but it has been well established. A litany of specialists on the Black press have made this argument for decades, from Kenneth D. Nordin to Frankie Hutton.4 As Frances Smith Foster writes, the Black press was founded on "the desire to create a positive and purposeful self-identified African America."5 Despite that body of scholarship, and the wider resurgence of interest today in African American print culture, the history of the early Black press remains [End Page 118] largely unwritten beyond a dozen surveys and bibliographies that, while invaluable, are now all at least two decades old and predate the advent of most online resources.6 It has become possible to tell a much fuller story.

The scale of the early Black press belies its second-class status. Before the end of the Civil War, more than one hundred Black men and women edited at least fifty-five different newspapers or magazines.7 Those publications sprang up in eight states (New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Ohio, Connecticut, California, and Indiana) and in Canada. Nearly half of these publications lasted two years or longer. By a conservative estimate, African Americans edited at least twenty-five hundred issues of periodicals during the antebellum era. Some of those issues have been lost over the centuries. Far more survive. It is possible today to locate copies for at least thirty publications. Evidence for the other twenty-five titles can be found in numerous reprints, references, and coverage in other antebellum newspapers. It is very likely that there are more issues and titles yet to be rediscovered.

Tracing the motives and objects of the early Black press leads to a few basic findings. Black editors had no interest in being subordinates of the white-run antislavery newspapers and associations. A few Black editors explicitly devoted their papers to ending slavery—such as David Ruggles, Frederick Douglass, and Benjamin F Roberts—but the experiences forced them to be even more fiercely independent. Consequently, many Black newspapers focused on the need for equal representation in the press, attuned to the power of newspapers to foster community and to encourage collective political action. This body of...