The Black Press – Then and Now

By Michael T. Owens and Brian Morse 

“It is an historical fact that no racial group of people anywhere in the world since the invention of the printing press, have attained freedom or appreciably improved their status without the aid of their own militant press. . . . Never in the history of America, nor of the profession of journalism, has there been a greater need to keep the issue of social equality clear, and never has the opportunity for our press to become a truly great asset in the struggle for human dignity been so manifest.”
– Frank L. Stanley, Former President and Co-founder of the National Newspaper Publisher’s Association.  

These words were uttered decades ago, but still ring true today in the face of the current tensions between police departments and communities of color.  From 1827, when John B. Russworm and Samuel Cornish started the Freedom’s Journal, to the creation of the NNPA, the Black Press has been a champion for Black issues and causes in America.  The Black Press was born out of the daily threat to free Blacks in the north and slaves in the south.

The American Colonization Society (ACS), was a growing movement in the early 1800s aimed at sending Blacks back to Africa. A group of white Americans created the ACS believing that free Blacks threatened the institution of slavery.  The ACS was successful in sending 12,000 Blacks to Liberia over the course of its existence.  Along with this movement, Blacks were also constantly degraded and derided in the White press.  

“We wish to plead our own cause, too long have others spoken for us.”  This quote appeared in the first editorial of the Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper published on March 16, 1827.  The Freedom’s Journal took on issues of civil rights, voting rights, slavery, education and as the Freedom’s Journal described it, “everything that relates to Africa”.  

From the Freedom’s Journal to the Colored American (1837-41), the North Star (1847-1860), the National Era and The Frederick Douglass Paper, Black newspapers began to circulate all around the country.  There were reportedly 500 newspapers that began publication between the Civil War and the turn of the century.  Oftentimes, the same printing machines Black churches used to print their programs were used to publish their newspapers. 

In 1892, Ida B Wells became part owner of The Memphis Free Speech. Wells traveled throughout the south investigating the cruelty of lynching upon Blacks.  She discovered that many Blacks were lynched for “competing” with Whites economically and not because major crimes had been committed. Her writings so infuriated the southern Whites that a mob ensued and burned down The Memphis Free Speech’s offices. Wells then moved to Chicago, IL where she united with Black leaders, including the notable Frederick Douglas.  

The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 took place in Chicago with the purpose of displaying American ingenuity to the world.  Wells published and distributed a pamphlet to more than 20,000 people protesting the exposition’s exclusion of Black history and accomplishments. This protest led to organizers arranging a Colored People’s Day at the exposition that drew more than 3,000 Blacks. 

As destiny would have it, Frederick Douglas, a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, journalist and publisher of several Blacks newspapers, gave a speech at the World’s Columbian Exposition that arguably helped change the history of America and the face of Chicago for years to come.  In attendance at this speech was a gentleman named Robert S. Abbott who traveled to Chicago with the Hampton Institute Quartet to sing spirituals.  Abbott’s stepfather, a mixed-race gentleman named John Sengstacke, had been a publisher of a newspaper named the Woodville Times where he taught Abott about the power of the Black Press and Black voices.  Abbott eventually moved to Chicago and began publishing the Chicago Defender in 1905 from his boardinghouse room.  The Chicago Defender would later become known as the most read Black newspaper in the country. 

The Chicago Defender was the first Black newspaper to have a circulation over 100,000 and it made Abbott a millionaire in the early 20th Century.  The Chicago Defender spoke out against the cruel Jim Crow treatment of the South.  During World War I, Abbott and the Defender launched a campaign in support of The Great Migration.  The Great Migration was a movement in which Blacks fled the rural south to urban cities of the north where greater economic opportunities awaited.  The Great Migration lasted from 1910 to 1970 and resulted in 6 Million Blacks moving from the south to the north.  

In 1940, John Sengstacke, the nephew of Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the Negro Newspaper Publisher’s Association.  The first organizational meeting of Black editors and publishers was held in Louisville, KY in 1881.  Many different Black Press organizations had formed between that time period and Sengstacke was aware that the National Negro Press Association would soon end.  The Negro Newspaper Publisher’s Association was formed in efforts of “securing unity and action in all matters relative to the profession of journalism and the business of publishing.” The Negro Newspaper Publisher’s Association later became the National Newspaper Publisher’s Association (NNPA). As Sengstacke organized the first group of publishers, Robert S. Abbott passed away.

John Sengstacke exhibited the power of the Black Press, also known as the National Newspaper Publisher’s Association, and its influence.  Sengstacke served seven terms as president of the NNPA. During this time, he worked closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get the first Black reporters assigned to the White House Press Corps; he also persuaded Roosevelt to create jobs in skilled and management positions for Blacks in the United States Postal Service.  President Harry S. Truman appointed him to the national commission to oversee the integration of the armed forces; and he turned the Chicago Defender into one of the first daily Black newspapers in the country. 

The National Newspaper Publisher’s Association held its annual conference at the Omni Hotel in Houston, TX from June 21 – 25, 2016.  The association is currently under the leadership of Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., one of the members of North Carolina’s “Wilmington 10” and former President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  The NNPA has more than 200 Black-owned community newspapers around the country with a collective weekly readership of over 20 million people.  

During the conference, the NNPA took part in Journalism Careers Workshops at Texas Southern University a Historically Black University. The workshop was such a success that it trended in the top five on Twitter in the Greater Houston area.  

The conference also welcomed the author of Our Black Year, Maggie Anderson and Eugene Mitchell of New York Life who discussed their $50 Billion Dollar Empowerment Plan.  This is an agent-led movement designed to increase financial awareness, to create wealth and to build financial legacies.  According to Mitchell, “$500 Million of generally tax-free life insurance benefits that New York Life Agents serving the Black community have been hand-delivered to their clients’ loved ones during the last five years.”  

Mitchel noted that the agents reached the $35 Billion mark of their $50 Billion goal.  However, many publishers in the room pushed back when they learned that New York Life did not financially support the movement with any advertisement in Black newspapers; and that New York Life offered no financial support for the movement.  Anderson expressed how difficult it had previously been to find support to back her movement of bringing awareness to Black owned businesses before she connected with Mitchell and created the $50 Billion Dollar Empowerment Plan.  

This year’s conference honored some notables in Black media.  It honored Dr. Bobby Jones and the radio fly-jock, Tom Joyner of the Tom Joyner Morning Show.  During the Legacy Awards Gala Dinner, The St. Louis American took home most of the awards, including Newspaper of the Year.

Many of the publishers and attendees raved about the National Newspaper Millennial’s Panel.  The panel participants were the children of the publishers of several newspapers being groomed to take over their family’s business.  They discussed the rarity of Black inheritance and how they were amongst a small number of individuals in the Black community expecting a business passed down to them.  

A constant theme among them was the desire to have nothing to do with the family business during their younger years.  Chelsea White, the daughter of Karen Carter Richards, publisher of the Houston Forward Times said that she, “worked for Enterprise and realized that she should use her skills to help her mother in the family business.  I was making the Taylor family money, but my mother was struggling by herself.”  White said her goal and objective for the future of Black newspapers is to be “warriors for Black news.  Nobody is going to tell our story like we can.”  

The session went well over its allotted time due to the interest of the audience. “I see friends developing businesses and they need a paper that can promote their business and what they are doing,” noted Lafayette Barnes, the son of the current Chairman of the Board of the NNPA and Washington Informer publisher, Denise Barnes.  The Dallas Weekly publisher, James A. Washington’s son, Patrick Washington suggested to the publishers that they should “use social media, events and video to diversify what they have.” Chida Warren-Darby, daughter and co-publisher of Dr. John Warren’s San Diego Voice and Viewpoint added, “The challenge is to not burn yourself out because you have all of these ideas.  Learning how to harness when necessary.  We all know how to do everything, but it is not good to do everything.”

The National Newspaper Publisher’s Association has been a major voice for the Black community during some of the most difficult times in the nation’s history.  It is necessary that we continue to support the NNPA and all forms of Black media such as the Tom Joyner Morning Show, television news broadcasts like NewsOne Now with Roland Martin and online publications like Blavity and TheGrio.  In the words of White, “Nobody is going to tell our story like we can.”

Fortunately, in the days of dying print newspapers, this organization has found a way to remain strong for 75 years.  However, many in the Black community are not aware of the NNPA.  It is our belief that the NNPA will continue to discover new, cutting edge and innovative ways to reach individuals and audiences hungry for their content.  As said by some in leadership, the NNPA is one of the best kept secrets!

Michael T. Owens and Brian Morse are staff members of, the Largest African American Business Directory in the world.

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