Etched Into History
In 1827, more than 30 years before the start of the Civil War, the state of New York abolished slavery. This in itself did not set precedent, as other territories and states such as Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut and Pennsylvania had previously passed similar edicts and outlawed slavery. But 1827 was also the year New York became the birthplace of America’s first black-owned and operated newspaper.
Founded by free black citizens from across the eastern seaboard, the four-column, four-page Freedom’s Journal was created to provide a personal voice in the fight against slavery. The weekly also focused on contending the denigration and prejudice towards blacks that routinely appeared in the established press. Editors John B. Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish were driven by the following mission statement: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick [sic] been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.”
Twenty years later, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who crusaded against the institution, founded The North Star, also in New York. The weekly, named after a well-known freedom song among slaves escaping to the North, also advocated for women’s rights. Its motto was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.”
Freedom’s Journal ran until 1829. The North Star, which was later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Press, ran until 1860 and garnered readership in Europe and the West Indies. Both publications were part of a contingent of over 40 black-owned papers published at the advent of the Civil War. New York was the birthplace for the black press, but three decades later and more than 700 miles away, another publishing center thrived.
Chicago, a leading post-war industrial city, was home to black-owned publications such as The Broad Ax, The Chicago Illinois Idea and The Conservator, all of which focused on racial conflicts permeating the nation while advocating equality and justice. In 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott launched the Chicago Defender, which proclaimed itself “The World’s Greatest Weekly.” The publication grew to have more than two-thirds of its readership located outside Chicago and helped spearhead the Great Migration. Posting job listings and train schedules, The Defender fervently called upon blacks in the staunchly segregated South to seek greener pastures in the North and even announced a “Great Northern Drive” day set for May 15, 1917. Abbott would later help create the city’s annual youth-focused Bud Billiken Parade, which remains one of the country’s largest. His nephew John H. Sengstacke, who took ownership of the paper in the 1940s, was highly influential in President Truman’s integration of the military and organized the conference that created the National Negro Publishers Association, later renamed the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA). Sengstacke also led the paper to daily circulation in 1956, making it the country’s second black-owned daily after the Atlanta Daily World.
Not long after Sengstacke took leadership of The Defender, a young man who was himself part of the Great Migration established another voice in the Chicago-based black press. In 1942, John H. Johnson published the first edition of The Negro Digest, written in the model of Readers’ Digest and later renamed Black World. In 1945, he created Ebony, a monthly patterned after Life and Look magazines. Six years later, he published JET, a weekly news digest. Both Ebony and JET grabbed readers with vivid covers highlighting prominent African American trailblazers in areas such as entertainment, fashion, business and sports. The captivating photos in these publications provided some of the most iconic imagery of the Civil Rights Movement. JET included graphic but gripping photos of Emmett Till’s open casket funeral in 1955. Following a 1968 edition that covered the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., longtime Ebony photographer Moneta Sleet, Jr. became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of Coretta Scott King consoling their youngest daughter.
As have scores of other publishers, Johnson Publishing Company recently redesigned both JET and Ebony to attract younger readers, particularly through digital and social media. The publications, which have long been coffee table standards in black households across the country, now have a marked online presence that appeals to the increasingly instantaneous nature of news consumption by spreading important messages and stories faster. In a Chicago Tribune interview, Ebony’s editor in chief Amy Dubois Barnett, who took on her role in 2010, spoke of how she “basically dragged [Ebony] by its ear into the 21st century,” a move that doubled the number of unique visitors within months of the magazine’s website redesign.
Mitzi Miller, who became editor in chief of JET in 2011, said the digital space has been crucial in revitalizing the brand. “You no longer have to buy the latest issue, you can read it online and you can download the app. I know some people think digital may cannibalize print media, but I see them as assets that can co-exist with print. There will always be an audience that wants print. And now we’re accessible to the audience that wants to read articles on their phone. We’re able to cater both.”
For Miller, her role at the helm of such a historic publication is priceless. “Why did I decide to pick up my entire life and move from New York to Chicago? To be an official part of black history,” she asserted. Having worked in editorial roles for jane and Honey magazines, she considers her current position a supreme personal achievement. “No matter what I do from here on out, I’ve made my mark. That’s something that I think is every black journalist’s dream – to do something that lasts above and beyond you.”
That dream has been and continues to be at the core of the black press and its fortified position in American history. Throughout more than 180 years, the presence of black publications in the country has grown from one weekly in antebellum New York to the NNPA’s more than 200 member publications. And the role of these publications, as Miller sees it, remains the same.
“For black media, we are the official record keepers of our history and stories. At JET our content has not been opinion-based, but verifiable, fact-checked truth. Decades from now, people will look back at these stories and say ‘This really happened.’ Being an official record keeper for our community is a tremendous honor and responsibility.”
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