By Eilene Lyon — March 16, 2021
This date in 1827 saw the publication of the first issue of Freedom’s Journal in New York City. It was the first newspaper produced by and for Blacks in the United States. A group of free men of color, primarily clergymen, met at the home of community organizer Boston Crummell (an oysterman by profession) to develop the newspaper.
At the meeting were Rev. Peter Williams, Jr. an Episcopal priest; abolitionist William Hamilton, purportedly the son of Alexander Hamilton and a free woman of color; Samuel Cornish, who established the African-American Presbyterian Church – chief editor and proprietor; and John Russwurm, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College – assistant editor and proprietor; among others.
Rev. Williams, the second ordained Black priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church, was the son of a Methodist minister. He had the charge of St. Philip’s Episcopal, then located 31 Centre St. between Worth and Leonard. Though he personally advocated abolition and the advancement of Blacks, his superiors in the church curtailed his political activities.
Williams and Russworm, who had been born in Jamaica, favored free Blacks from America colonizing Haiti. Haiti, after the successful slave revolt in 1804, had become the second republic in the western hemisphere.
Russworm also supported the American Colonization Society’s (ACS) efforts to remove Blacks from America to Liberia. This put him at odds with the senior editor, Cornish, who vehemently opposed the Society’s aims. Cornish wanted full freedom for Blacks in America. Russworm eventually moved voluntarily to Liberia and became involved in politics there.
The opening editorial of the inaugural issue expressed the religious bent of its founders: “For we believe, that a paper devoted to the dissemination of useful knowledge among our brethren, and to their moral and religious improvement, must meet with the cordial approbation of every friend in humanity.”
The editors explained that a Black-run newspaper was necessary to promote their own causes. “Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations in things which concern us dearly…” They endeavored to change Americans’ perceptions about the character of the people who had been oppressed by slavery, prejudice, and ignorance.
Aside from its politics, the editors published local, national and international news; birth, marriage and death announcements for the Black community; and even poetry and literature. They advertised educational opportunities, as well.
The launch of Freedom’s Journal appears to have been little noted in the New York City press. However, the Philadelphia-based The United States Gazette did publish an article about the newspaper a week later. Though it generally supported the paper and had some laudatory remarks, it also found room to criticize. The Journal did find an appreciative audience in England, however.
Even some in the southern press took note, with compliments.
When Cornish left the paper after six months at the helm, Russwurm began asserting his support for the ACS. This unpopular position cost him substantial readership. In 1829, Cornish returned upon Russwurm’s departure and renamed the paper. He failed to revive it and it folded for good in 1830.
Feature image: Image of the front page of the third issue of Freedom’s Journal (Wikimedia Commons)
https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS4415 (PDFs of all issues)
Woodson, Carter G. c1921. The History of the Negro Church. Associated Publishers, Washington, D.C. pp. 94-97.
The United States Gazette (Philadelphia), March 23, 1827 p. 2 c. 1 – via Newspapers.com.
Free Press (Halifax, NC), April 14, 1827 p. 3 c. 1 – via Newspapers.com.