A History of African American Newspapers in New England
New England Ethnic News, News Report, Kenneth J. Cooper Posted: Jan 17, 2007
What was the first black newspaper in Boston? In New England?
Though those questions are straightforward, the answers are not. Much of the history of the black press in the region and its largest city is missing, incomplete or contradictory. Copies of many early ones can not be found. Who published papers, and exactly for how long, is often hazy. The gaps persist even into the last century: No one has copies of the entire run of the region’s most influential black paper, William Monroe Trotter’s Boston Guardian.
It is clear, though, that black newspapers have been published in New England for about 170 years. They started rolling off presses about a decade after Freedom’s Journal, based in New York City, became the first voice of African Americans in print. “We wish to plead our own cause,” its founders proclaimed.1
New England’s first black paper appears to have been The Anti-Slavery Herald, launched in Boston in 1838 by one of the city’s prominent black citizens, Benjamin F. Roberts, a printer who became known for his unsuccessful lawsuit in 1849 challenging the segregation of the school system so he could enroll his daughter Sarah in a school closer to the family home at the northern foot of Beacon Hill. The paper faced competition for black readers from William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator at a time of dissension among abolitionists. The Herald had financial problems from the start and closed soon. No copies are known to have survived.2
The region’s first black paper outside Boston apparently was in Hartford, Connecticut. A Presbyterian minister named James William Charles Pennington owned and edited an anti-slavery paper, The Clarksonian, whose brief run began in 1843. It was a monthly, and was named for Thomas Clarkson, who led the successful campaign in England to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire.3
In 1850, the Impartial Citizen appeared in Boston.4 Its editor, Samuel Ringgold Ward, was a Congregational minister, abolitionist and public intellectual of national prominence.5 Surviving letters to the editor indicate the paper circulated by mail to other eastern states -- possibly further west -- and had influence beyond the Boston.6 Ward’s stature set a precedent for the editor of a black Boston paper to play on the national stage—as Trotter did after launching his Guardian a half-century later in 1901.
Like The Herald, Clarksonian and Impartial Citizen, the earliest papers focused on national affairs, and ventured into international issues. The broad scope is impressive given their small staffs, limited finances and the slower-paced communications of their day. Black literacy rates were low, and their audience was limited to a small educated elite and some sympathetic whites. As a result, sustaining the papers was a constant financial challenge. Most did not last long.
The existing record shows that African Americans in New England have produced about 60 newspapers and magazines, though the evident gaps in regional history suggest there were more.7 Publications whose identities are known have been published in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.
Connecticut, with its dispersed black communities, has probably been home to the largest number—more than two dozen. Connecticut papers have been published in Bridgeport, Hamden, Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk and Waterbury. Slightly fewer known publications, about 20, have been published in Massachusetts. The great majority were based in Boston, where the black press has had a fairly consistent presence at least since the 1880s. Maine has had one paper, in Portland. None appears to have ever been published in New Hampshire or Vermont.8
In early 2007, at least seven papers are being published in the region. Like counterparts around the country, their coverage is mostly local, as is their circulation. The only papers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine are the weekly Bay State Banner in Boston, bi-weekly Providence American and The Bridge, a monthly in Portland, Maine that is resuming publication after three years.
In Connecticut, there are at least four papers. The weekly Inquiring News in Hartford, with multiple editions serving different cities, claims the widest circulation in the region. Two other papers are based in the state capital, the weekly Northend Agent's and The West Indian American, a monthly. The weekly Inner-City News is published in New Haven.
Together, the black press of New England has served as an advocate for African Americans and chronicler of their lives and communities, which are still underreported in white-owned dailies.
The papers have also left a mark on the nation’s media. Since the late 1800s, journalists who reported for black publications early in their careers have joined the staffs of white-owned, “mainstream” dailies. In Rhode Island, one may have been the first black editor in the nation to run a white-owned daily—early in the 20th century.9 About the same time another in Boston may have been the first black staff photographer at a major daily.10 More recently, Gwen Ifill, who started her career at the Bay State Banner in the 1970s, has become a news anchor on public television.11
Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a fellow at the Center for Media and Society at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and a freelance journalist. He is also the senior editor of NEWz.
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