Black media has played a pivotal role in defining US culture and counterculture. By the end of the 20th century, Black journalists were often referred to as “soldiers without swords” for their crusading work against biased, anti-black reporting. The desire to accurately represent the Black experience is a through-line in the history of Black media that stretches back to Freedom’s Journal. Freedom’s Journal, which is considered the first Black newspaper, was established in 1827 by Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm. In the paper’s first issue, they proclaimed “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentation, in things which concern us dearly.” The paper became an essential source for providing information to freed slaves, sharecroppers, and abolitionists at a time when most newspapers either erased Black people from their pages or represented them in a disparaging light.
Freedom’s Journal set the stage for an influx of Black newspapers. Frederick Douglass established The North Star twenty years later, and according to Nieman Reports, there were 40 black newspapers in publication by the start of the Civil War in 1861. The creation of the Black press in the 19th century is particularly astounding when you consider they were publishing at a time when reading was outlawed for the majority of Black people living in the South.
After the Civil War, there were massive education campaigns for the newly freed slaves across the South. Between 1870 and 1920 the black illiteracy rate dropped significantly, which drove up readership for the Black press. The number of Black owned papers and weekly circulation both shot up in the 1920s, which are often considered the Black press’s heyday. The Pittsburg Courier, for example, had a weekly circulation of over 300,000. Black newspapers covered an array of topics, while always keeping Black voices at the center. From uplifting Black entertainers to sharing job opportunities and political analysis, the Black press became the backbone of Black culture and community. Black thinkers and leaders like Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marcus Garvey and Zora Neale Hurston garnered attention and connected with an audience through the Black press.
Black magazines had to address similar representation issues as Black newspapers. However, the massive role of advertising in the magazine industry gave Black magazine publishers a specific interest in marketing and Black products. Many advertisers did not view Black Americans as viable consumers and refused to market to them. Moreover, racist caricatures were often used in brand images to sell to white consumers. The myth that the black population wasn’t a viable market made it difficult to establish Black magazines. John H. Johnson struggled to find financial backing for the first Black magazine, Negro Digest (later renamed Black World.) When it was finally published in 1942 distributors were hesitant to put it on the stands. In time, the readership was steady enough to show proof of concept, enabling Johnson to establish Ebony and Jet while revolutionizing advertising.
In 1941 The Chicago Defender’s John Sengstack organized a meeting of 22 Black publishers to establish “a common purpose for the benefit of Negro journalism.” The National Negro Publishers Association was born out of that meeting. Today the association is called the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and has over 200 participating Black newspapers.