Black Press Day
annually on March 16th
On March 16, 1827, the first newspaper published by black Americans, Freedom's Journal, was founded. On the 150th anniversary year of the paper's founding, Jimmy Carter issued a proclamation designating June 17, 1977, as Black Press Day. By at least the mid-1980s, Black Press Day was being celebrated on March 16, the anniversary date of the newspaper's founding. One source claims that the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) "designated" the day, but it is unclear if they created the day.
On March 16, 1827, black citizens met in the home of Bostin Crummell in New York City to discuss how they could best communicate their views about social, political, and economic issues in their community. There and elsewhere, churches and fraternal organizations had been the bedrock of black discussion, but blacks were denied the use of white newspapers. Worse yet, they were often denigrated by the mainstream press in racist ways. Those at the meeting decided they would publish Freedom's Journal. John Brown Russwurm and Reverend Samuel Cornish, who had attended the meeting, became its editors. They said, "Too long have others spoken for us...We wish to plead our own cause."
The black press spoke of struggles against slavery, and after emancipation continued to speak out against discrimination. By the Civil War, there were 40 black newspapers. They reached their pinnacle in the 1930s and '40s, at a time when black issues continued to be ignored by major newspapers. Black newspapers listed job opportunities and retailers that didn't discriminate. They took on the major issues of the day from the perspective of black people. They showed black people with dignity.
Many black newspapers pushed for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, helping to shift black voters from the party of Lincoln to the Democratic Party. Black entertainers such as Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, and Little Richard were highlighted in black newspapers before they broke into the mainstream. The newspapers pushed for open housing, voting rights, equal accommodations, and more, before and during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
By the late 1960s and early '70s, the era of Black Power, black newspapers were not as essential as they had once been, as many black writers began writing for mainstream newspapers. Some black journalists had begun doing so during the civil rights movement and had been assigned to covering the movement itself. In a sense, the success of the black newspapers helped to give black journalists the opportunity to work for mainstream newspapers, making the black newspapers less relevant. Still, many black newspapers continued to thrive, and still do today.
In 1940, a meeting of black publishers was held in Chicago, at the request of John Sengstacke, the publisher of The Chicago Defender. Representatives from 22 black publications attended, and a decision was made to form the National Negros Publishers Association. (They changed their name to the National Newspaper Publishers Association in 1956.) Over 200 newspapers in the United States are now part of the NNPA. They also operate the Black Press Institute, which has an online presence with BlackPressUSA.com, which showcases the work of NNPA member publications. There also is the NNPA Foundation, which gives out scholarships and journalism prizes and has a student internship program.
One major black newspaper is The Chicago Defender. Founded in 1905, it helped influence the start of the Great Migration of blacks around the time of World War I. In 1928, it helped get Oscar DePriest elected; he became the first black Congressman since Reconstruction. The newspaper pushed for Harry Truman to desegregate the Armed Forces in the 1940s and made other similar efforts at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Longtime publisher John Sengstacke passed away in 1997 and it was unknown what would happen to the publication, but in 2002 it was bought out by Real Times and continues to be published today. Other prominent black newspapers include the Los Angeles Sentinel; The Philadelphia Tribune, which is the oldest continuously published black newspaper; and the Pittsburgh Courier (now the New Pittsburgh Courier), which was was the biggest black newspaper for a time. Prominent black newspaper writers included Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Richard Wright, Romare Bearden, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Daisy Bates, Mary McLeod Bethune, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey, and Elijah Muhammad. Today many black writers carry on their tradition, and we celebrate them and their writing today.
How to Observe Black Press Day
The following are some ideas on how to celebrate the day:
- Read a book related to the black press such as The Black Press: New Literary and Historical Essays or The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.
- Watch The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, a documentary about the black press.
- Read current black newspapers at Our Village News or Black Press USA. You could also go directly to the websites of The Chicago Defender, the Los Angeles Sentinel, The Philadelphia Tribune, or the New Pittsburgh Courier.
- Subscribe to or advertise with a black newspaper.
- Become a member of the National Newspaper Publishers Association or advertise with them.
- Teach a lesson about Freedom's Journal.
- Find a library where you can read Freedom's Journal.
- Explore newspaper archives and other resources at the Black Press Research Collective.
- View images from historic black newspapers at the Obsidian Collection Archives.
- Read the writings of some of the historic black newspaper writers that are mentioned in the holiday's description, such as the writings of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ida B. Wells.
- Visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.