Any notion of seeking a definitive history of the early Black press should begin with the works of Irvine Garland Penn. Penn came to mind last week while profiling the remarkable life of writer/educator Josephine Washington. Penn cited her in his book The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, which he published in 1891. And this is just perhaps the most memorable book from his prodigious literary production.

Penn was born Oct. 7, 1867 in New Glasgow, Virginia and his family moved to Lynchburg, Va. when he was five. By his senior year in high school, his journalistic career was underway. He received a master’s degree from Rust College and his doctorate in journalism later from Wiley College in Texas in 1908. 

Even as he acquired academic standing, Penn was writing for several publications, including the Richmond Planet, where he was a correspondent.

He was also a regular contributor to the Knoxville Negro World and the New York Age, where his coverage of African American affairs was a staple and well-received. In 1886, he was the editor of the Laborer, a small Black newspaper, before becoming a teacher in Lynchburg. Within a decade, he was promoted to principal. Three years later, he married Anna Belle Rhodes, herself a distinguished activist and writer, and a graduate of Shaw University, where she taught for several years. They had seven children.

Penn’s stories were followed with fervor by a large audience, many of whom commented about his phenomenal coverage in letters to the editor. Civil rights and the injustice faced by Black Americans were among the topics at the heart of this reportage. 

It was about this time he began to assemble his stories and compose biographies that led to his notable books about journalists and editors. In 1893, his book about Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Wells’s husband Ferdinand Lee Barnett was published along with a pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.

The pamphlet was widely promoted and circulated, giving Penn additional prominence and notoriety in championing the causes of African Americans. It may have played a critical role in his being made director and organizer of the African American exhibit at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, an event given further recognition as a platform for Booker T. Washington and his famous speech about race relations.

Ever active, Penn became assistant general secretary of the Epworth League for Colored Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1897. From this vantage point, he created the National Negro Young People Christian and Educational Congress in conjunction with his teaching at Rust College, a position that was instrumental in the development of his 1902 project and book, The College Life.

By 10 years later, Penn had moved to Cincinnati, where he became the co-corresponding secretary of the Freedmen’s Aid Society, an affiliation of the Methodist Episcopal Church. From this post, he played a critical role in fundraising for several educational institutions, such as his alma mater Rust, Morgan College, and Philander Smith College. Among his most rewarding benefactors was James N. Gamble, son of James Gamble of Procter & Gamble.

By the mid-1910s, Penn was a major participant in the movement to unify the Methodist church, which sought to mend the split between North and South due in part to slavery. He and Robert E. Jones were the leading African American members of the Joint Commission on Unification of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Their combined wisdom was decisive during the meetings and assured the white delegates that they were not only campaigning for racial social equality, but also working for the interests of Black Methodists.

In 1924, largely because of their efforts, the ME Church combined Black and white boards of education. This development removed Penn from his position as secretary of the Board of Education for Negroes. Consequently, he was severely criticized, although he remained a member of the board.

Penn became seriously ill in the summer of 1930 in Cincinnati, a few weeks after the death of his wife. He died of heart disease on July 22, 1930. It was widely speculated that his death was related to injuries sustained from being thrown off a segregated train in South Carolina.

This excerpt from his book about the African American press and the significance of New York in the enterprise is instructive: 

Not only was New York the garden-spot for journalistic fruit, but Pennsylvania also occupies a place on that record. In 1843, when the interest of every man at the North had been stirred up on the slave question, the Afro-Americans of Pittsburgh, not unlike their friends in New York, desired and sought to publish letters in their behalf, but could find no means of expression. Their pleas to the white publishers of papers were not heeded. This prompted Major Martin R. Delaney to publish a weekly sheet in the early part of the year, under the title of The Mystery, which was devoted solely to the interest of his race.

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