When I first started my academic career at UNT I knew exactly what I wanted to be, an amazing journalist and later an editor-in-chief of a publication. I would have groundbreaking interviews and exposes while wearing the most wardrobe that would make Olivia Pope jealous. Unfortunately, childhood fantasies gave way to harsh realities and I quickly realized I was not cut out for such a career. The long hours of researching, the subjects that ignore your calls and text for an interview, and the deadlines that were always fast approaching. It was just too much for me, give me a media campaign and statements to issue any day. I don’t regret starting that journey because I was able to learn about the men and women of color that came before me and paved the way for me to even have journalism as a choice, to begin with. So let us take a walk down memory lane and pay our respects to the “Black soldiers without swords” that came before and are here now.
Thanks to my professor, Dr. Bland, who showed the documentary “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords” we can begin our journey in Pre-Civil War America in New York City on Varick St. At the time this was the hub of the newspaper and radio world for America. It was here, on March 16, 1827, that John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish founded Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned and operated newspaper in America. Even though the paper lasted two years, the sparked that it created was enough to start a fire in black journalists to start their papers and tell the stories that white publications would not cover about the black community. At its peak, the journalism world had 500 black-owned newspapers during the civil war, unfortunately, this was not to last. After the Reconstruction Era, the KKK took more power in the south causing a chokehold in the dissemination of black papers to their readers by any means necessary. One of the great writers and editors of the time, Ida B. Wells, had her offices destroyed by a mob after she and Fredrick Douglass wrote the famous The Reason Why pamphlet in 1893. These acts of hate although terrible led to writings and speeches that inspired the next generation of black journalists.
Enter in Robert Abbott, who after hearing the last speech of Mr. Douglass, created and owned The Chicago Defender newspaper and went on to address the hurdles that black publishers were facing in the south. Mr. Abbott, using the same tenacity that got him through law school, used the luggage carrier on trains to distribute his paper in the south, which at its peak had over 100,000 subscribers. The Chicago Defender was used not only to keep blacks in the south aware of news but also to encourage them to move to the north during The Great Migration. With the popularity of the newspaper, Mr. Abbott became the first black publisher millionaire. In 2019 The Defender cease its print publication and is now available only online making it the longest published black newspaper with its 118-year run.
As the years have continued black journalists, editors, photographers, and many others have answered the call to tell stories about issues that have mattered to the black community, not just in America but around the world. With the invention of TV, journalist Max Robinson because the first black TV anchor in 1978 with ABC News, and Carole Simpson became the first black female anchor in 1988 also with ABC News. Moneta Sleet Jr. became the first black photographer to win a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of Coretta Scott King at the funeral of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, in 1969.
While we, as a community, have concurred many mountains in the journalism field there are still many more to go. With the help of other modern-day journalists, such as Lester Holt, Abby Phillip, Audie Cornish, and countless others, the labors of the past were not in vain. The seeds that were planted all those years ago on Varick St. have continued and will continue to grow and flourish.
Nelson, S., Nelson, S., Linson, V., Nelson, J., Potter, L., Smith, M. A., Morton, J., Erskine, L., Carter, R., Shepard, B., Butler, R., & Takagi, J. T. (n.d.). The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords.