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African Americans in Journalism

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Samuel E. Cornish (left) and John Brown Russwurm (right) with mastheads of Freedom's Journal and The Colored American (New York Public Library, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Black Culture; Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)

Ever since Issue One of Freedom's Journal, the first black-owned and -operated newspaper in the United States, was published in New York on 16 March 1827, African American journalism has been synonymous with the struggle for civil rights. The paper was founded by Presbyterian minister Samuel Eli Cornish ( 1795–1858) and John Brown Russwurm (1799–1851), a Jamaican-born educator and abolitionist who graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine the previous year, becoming the third black American to hold a college degree. Prior to that, Russwurm began teaching in black schools in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, an experience which sparked his intellectual and political interests, inclining him towards activism. In particular, this period allowed him to meditate on the success of the Haitian Revolution in 1804, contrasting that nation's independence with the conditions of blacks living in the United States. His intellectual curiosity eventually guided him to Bowdoin, where he proclaimed in his commencement oration in 1826: "it is the irresistible course of events that all men, who have been deprived of their liberty, shall recover this previous portion of their indefeasible inheritance." With this conviction and commitment to liberty, Russwurm and Cornish began publishing Freedom's Journal in 1827, an endeavor committed to serving underrepresented black communities. The paper was short-lived due its founders' ideological differences and strained financial support. Although both men lamented the harsh conditions endured by most African Americans, they came to disagree on the best strategy of making black lives matter in the antebellum U.S. Believing that black people would never win equality in America, Russwurm supported their emigration to Africa. Cornish chose to stay in the U.S. to write and fight for change. Russwurm eventually moved to Monrovia, Liberia in 1829, where he became editor of West Africa's first black newspaper, the Liberia Herald, and served as governor of the Republic of Maryland, an African American colonial settlement in Liberia, until his death in 1851.

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