The Heroines of America’s Black Press
November 25, 2019 3:39 AM   Subscribe

How many black women journalists from the nineteenth century can you name? For many, the list starts and ends with Ida B. Wells, the pioneering newspaperwoman and activist whose anti-lynching crusade galvanized a movement. Wells was celebrated in her own lifetime, and for good reason—she inspired people on both sides of the Atlantic to pay attention to the atrocities inflicted on black Americans. But far from acting alone, she was part of a much larger network of black women journalists who dared to wield their pens in the names of truth and justice. At a time when all women were discouraged from engaging in “unladylike” activities like politics, the women of the black press were boldly writing about racial justice, gender equality, and political reform. In The New York Review of Books, Maya Millett introduces us to journalists we should know.

The African-American press of the nineteenth century was a lively, dynamic, insistently visible force for change. First emerging in 1827 with Freedom’s Journal, a New York–based newspaper founded by a group of free black men and edited by journalists Samuel Cornish and John Russworm, the initial pre-Emancipation black-owned papers not only railed against slavery and injustice but served as a vital source of community and education. They spread knowledge about current affairs, literature, and the arts, during a time when simply learning how to read and write in many parts of the country could get a black person killed. Countering the constant hatred leveled against black Americans by the mainstream press, and white America at-large, the publications provided a space for their readers to be truthfully, respectfully, seen.

This driving spirit of the black press only intensified after the end of slavery. ... Crucial to many of these publications was the exceptional work of black women. These journalists were of the black elite and the working class, the free-born and the formerly enslaved. They were a mix of wives and mothers and widows, and women who never married at all. They were civic workers and religious leaders and educators—and many of them were active clubwomen. ...

In an attempt to repair some of what’s been lost to time and prejudice, six different artists who celebrate black womanhood in their own work—Adriana Bellet, Andrea Pippins, Elise R. Peterson, Erin Robinson, Johnalynn Holland, and Xia Gordon—have created original portraits of the journalists described here, based on the images that are extant. These portraits, and the brief biographies that accompany them, honor the extraordinary lives these women led and serve to memorialize their legacies.
posted by Bella Donna (2 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, thank you! My list has certainly begun and ended with Wells, and I felt pretty good about that ... this is a very helpful resource!
posted by allthinky at 10:45 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wow - what a great, great article (and project).

It's going to take me some time to give this the full attention it deserves, but it's right at the top of my reading list.

Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Bella Donna!
posted by kristi at 1:40 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

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