Today’s page takes a look at the first Black newspaper, which was founded by one of the first Blacks to graduate from college, John Brown Russwurm.
Russwurm was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, on Oct. 1, 1799. Not much is known about his mother except that she was most likely Jamaican. His father was an American merchant of German descent.
Russwurm lived in Jamaica until around 1 807 and received elementary schooling before being sent to school in Quebec, Canada. By 1812, father and son were in Portland, Maine, and Russwurm’s father had a new wife, Susan Blanchard.
Russwurm’s new stepmother insisted that he be given his father’s surname, thus John Brown became John Brown Russwurm.
The next leg of his education came at Maine’s Hebron Academy, where he earned the nickname “Honest John” for his good nature and dedication to his studies. Russwurm continued his education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He joined the Athenaeans, the first college fraternity to admit a Black student. He graduated in 1826 with a bachelor’s degree. He received a master’s degree three years later, but for decades, he remained the first and only Black graduate at Bowdoin, outside of the medical department.
After Bowdoin, Russwurm came to New York City, quickly settling into the circle of free and educated Black people. He was bright, articulate and dedicated to the freedom struggle. When the time came to create a newspaper solely dedicated to the concerns of Black people, Russwurm was a perfect choice to run it.
“We wish to plead our own cause, too long have others spoken for us.”
The mission of the newspaper was simple. It countered the pro-slavery white press; it encouraged Blacks to improve their lives through hard work and education; it showcased successful Blacks while always abhorring slavery and other crimes against Black people; and it reported on local and foreign events but always focused on Black accomplishments and self-improvement.
Freedom’s Journal hit the presses on March 16, 1827 (the same year that slavery was abolished in New York), and ran each week until March 28, 1829. A total of 103 issues were published. It was the first newspaper owned, operated and published by Blacks. The office was located at 5 Varick St. in downtown Manhattan.
Russwurm and the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish, who was the minister of the first Negro Presbyterian Church, served as editors. Cornish resigned six months into the venture but Russwurm continued on.
A one-year subscription went for $3. Advertising was 25 to 75 cents for 12 to 22 lines. Circulation was around 800, with subscribers from 11 states along the Eastern Seaboard, as well as the District of Columbia, Canada, Haiti and Britain.
In addition to reporting on regional and national news, the paper also featured biographies and achievements of renowned and inspiring Blacks, like Paul Cuffee, Toussaint Louverture and the poet Phyllis Wheatley. It also featured wedding announcements, job and housing listings and obituaries. A popular feature was a column titled “David Walker’s Appeal,” which called for slaves to rebel against their masters.
“Walker’s Appeal” stated: “It is no more harm for you to kill the man who is trying to kill you than it is for you to take a drink of water.” His bold call for attack was widely read and popular. Walker distributed copies of his pamphlet in the South, where it was banned.
By 1828, discouraged by the racism and discrimination against Blacks in America, Russwurm began to promote the controversial idea of Black colonies, ideally in Africa, where they could establish new, independent and free lives for themselves, ideas shared by Paul Cuffee and others. Russwurm saw the Republic of Liberia as the answer. He resigned as editor of Freedom’s Journal in 1829.
Cornish tried to revive the publication a few months after Russwurm’s resignation, calling it The Rights of All, but it folded for good in less than a year.
Freedom’s Journal may have only lasted for a short two years, but it opened the door for a wave of Black newspapers. By the time the Civil War started in 1860, there were more than 40 Black owned and operated newspapers in the country.
Life after Freedom’s Journal
It was in the summer of 1829 that Russwurm received his master’s from Bowdoin. By November, he was headed to Monrovia, Liberia, sent by the American Colonization Society, where he became superintendent of public schools and served as secretary in the colony.
Russwurm quickly learned the language of the locals, and after a few months, he started another paper, the Liberia Herald, which he edited for five years. The publication covered life in the new colony and also the events surrounding the continued slave trade along the African coast.
In 1833, Russwurm married Sarah McGill, the daughter of the lieutenant governor of Monrovia. The couple had a daughter and three sons.
In 1836, Russwurm was appointed governor of the colony of Maryland, one of several separate colonies along the West African coast. He remained in that office until his death. A group of African-American settlers began farming vegetables and coffee and raising livestock. Over the next two decades, more than 1,000 new colonists arrived, establishing churches, schools and a militia. Under Russwurm, Maryland remained stable and flourished.
In 1851, Russwurm came to America for the last time, bringing his sons George and Francis with him. The boys went to live with their step-grandmother, Susan Hawes, and enrolled at North Yarmouth Academy.
Russwurm died in 1851. A memorial was raised to him at Cape Palmas in Liberia, where he completed his mission of helping to develop a place in Africa where Black Americans could control their own lives, their own destinies and enjoy the freedom that was denied to them in America.
- Look It Up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about John B. Russwurm and Freedom’s Journal.
- Talk About It: Discuss the importance of the Black press, including the paper you are reading right now. Also discuss the American Colonization Society. Do you think it was a good idea?
- Find It:Use a map or globe to locate Monrovia and Cape Palmas in Liberia.
- Read This: Visit www.huarchivesnet.howard.edu/0002huarnet/teaching1.htm and read the first editorial published in Freedom’s Journal, titled “To Our Patrons,” in which editors John Russwurm and the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish describe the need to start a Black newspaper. What was their message and why is it still important today?
This Week in Black History
- Sept. 24, 1957: A group of Black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” integrate Little Rock Central High School under the escort of federal troops.
- Sept. 19 – Sept. 26, 1907: The People’s Savings Bank is incorporated in Philadelphia on this date by former Black Rep. George H. White. The bank helps hundreds buy homes and start businesses until it closes in 1918.
- Sept. 29, 1975: WGPR-TV, the first Black-owned station in the country, begins broadcasting in Detroit.