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The black press: champions of freedom

Sunday, February 07, 1999

By Tony Norman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Black newspapers have been around longer than American blacks have been free. But an embarrassment for American democracy has become a proud legacy for the men and women who've maintained the vitality of the black press more than 172 tumultuous years.

"Soldiers without Swords" explains that hundreds of African Americans found jobs as pressmen, lithographers and typographers working for black newspapers between 1900 and 1910. (Pittsburgh Courier archives) 

In "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," a PBS special airing tomorrow on WQED/WQEX, we meet several generations of black reporters, editors, photographers and cartoonists for whom struggling against society's low opinion has been par for the course.

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson's documentary begins with a look at Freedom's Journal, the only newspaper publishing in the United States in 1827 that took the word "freedom" and its implications seriously.

Edited and written by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, Freedom Journal was the first newspaper in the world dedicated to a "black perspective." Considering the times, it was an audacious enterprise for blacks to be engaged in when the humanity of blacks was still an open question.

It is also one of the first instances of Negroes pooling their resources for racial uplift. It was a constructive reaction to the relentless hatred of all nonwhites that spilled onto the pages of the mainstream press daily.

    TV Review:

'The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords"

When: 10 p.m. tomorrow (Feb. 8) on WQED/WQEX.

Narrator: Joe Morton.

Related article:

Newspapers boldly mirrored the black American experience


Freedom Journal also was a turning point in mass communications that set the tone for 23 other black newspapers that were published before the Civil War. After Emancipation, 500 newspapers popped up at various times and places to continue the work begun by the tiny broad sheet founded in lower Manhattan.

From day one, the black media has always been an advocacy press that boldly called for the enfranchisement and full participation of Negroes in American life. Black newspapers also would showcase the dignity and accomplishments of black life in a hostile nation.

Nelson's documentary explores the impact of the black press on the nation's body politic. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass published The North Star in 1847, a newspaper that influenced presidents even if they didn't acknowledge reading it.

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After the war, Ida B. Wells, the editor and investigative reporter of the Memphis Free Speech, traveled the South documenting mob violence against blacks. Her paper was attacked and destroyed in June 1892 because of it. But Wells continued her work at the New York Age, the birthplace of truly radical black journalism.

The documentary picks up speed when Charlotta Bass of the California Eagle and Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender are showcased. The popularity of their newspapers made the eventual triumph of Robert L. Vann's Pittsburgh Courier all the sweeter.

"Soldiers Without Swords" meticulously documents the history of the black press through lively interviews with scholars and journalists who've had a part in it.

Pittsburgh is disproportionately represented thanks to archival footage of Vann and on-screen interviews with Robert Lavelle, George Barbour, Phyllis Garland, Frank Bolden and the late Charles "Teenie" Harris.

Historian and writer Edna Chappel McKenzie tells vivid stories about covering racism in Pittsburgh and the emotional toll it sometimes took on her.

The integration of American news rooms meant the waning of the black press. Black reporters ran off to the big papers in their communities in search of bigger salaries and assignments. The documentary makes no bones about the fact that black newspapers aren't what they used to be (or could be).

Still, it's hard to imagine a more noble journalistic enterprise after watching 172 years of democracy condensed into 90 minutes.

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