Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega explores a helpful resource for family history research: an online collection of African American newspapers. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
When we think of newspapers we often think of a local newspaper. That makes sense; it’s the format we are most familiar with. Maybe you or your family once subscribed to the local city or regional newspaper, which covered all types of news throughout the area. However, other types of newspapers existed in America’s history – and these newspapers focused on the interests and lives of a specific community. These communities can consist of an ethnic, racial, religious, or academic group.
Ethnic-focused newspapers played an important part in their community for many reasons, one of which is that they told the truth about events that might have been downplayed or whitewashed due to racism and hatred – or may never have appeared in the mainstream press at all.
African American newspapers are an important part of American newspaper history. While it’s easy to assume these newspapers began after the Civil War, in reality the first predates the war by decades: Freedom’s Journal was first published in March 1827. A weekly newspaper, it was “circulated in 11 states, the District of Columbia, Haiti, Europe, and Canada.”*
Freedom’s Journal was born from a meeting of New York Black leaders who agreed that the racist rantings of the local press needed to be challenged. “In its wake, some thirty black-owned papers would appear in the northern states in the period before the Civil War, while more than 1,100 would be published during the latter half of the nineteenth century.”**
In the inaugural issue of Freedom’s Journal the editors declared:
An education is what renders civilized man superior to the savage: as the dissemination of knowledge is continually progressing among all other classes in the community: we deem it expedient to establish a paper, and bring into operation all the means with which our benevolent Creator had endowed us, for the moral, religious, civil and literary improvement of our injured race.
Daily slandered, we think that there ought to be some channel of communication between us and the public: through which a single voice may be heard, in defence of five hundred thousand free people of colour. For often has injustice been heaped upon us, when our only defence was an appeal to the Almighty: but we believe that the time has now arrived, when the calumnies of our enemies should be refuted by forcible arguments.
You can read Freedom’s Journal on GenealogyBank.
African American Newspapers Nationwide
Freedom’s Journal was the first in the long list of African American newspapers that have been published nationwide, as evidenced from a Census Bureau statistical report from the late 1930s reporting that not less than 227 newspapers and 105 magazines and bulletins were being published by African Americans between 1 November 1937 and 31 October 1938. Of those 227 newspapers, 145 reported their combined circulation as 1,322,072.*** It’s important to remember that those newspapers had subscribers based in the local city they published in – but their overall subscription base included other cities, states, and even countries.
GenealogyBank’s African American Newspaper Archives
GenealogyBank’s African American Newspaper Archives span over 170 years, from 1827 to1999, and include 39 newspapers from around the United States. Searchable by keyword, state or title, these newspapers provide a look at issues important to the community. They also report on the lives of those in the community.
African American newspapers are an excellent place to search for obituaries, birth notices, and mentions of illness. This list of the recently-deceased in the May 1897 issue of the Afro-American Sentinel includes those who suffered from the measles, consumption, and paralysis. The same column includes a birth announcement.
The San Francisco Vindicator was a weekly newspaper and a good example of the great community information that can be found in these African American newspapers. Here’s a listing of fraternal order societies and their meeting times.
Newspapers can also be a source of names lists. Typically we see examples of these with lists naming those who have unpaid taxes. But in this San Francisco Vindicator example, the names of people who owe the newspaper money are listed with their address and in some cases occupation.
Don’t forget to pay attention to the newspaper advertisements. If your ancestor owned a business, an advertisement can be helpful in learning more about their lives. This advertisement for Dollie Tivis’s hair salon boasts that they use hair products from Mme. C. J. Walker. Madam C. J. Walker was an African American entrepreneur and the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S. Her hair products were in great demand.
Start Your Search Today
Don’t narrow your newspaper search to just the mainstream newspapers. Enhance it by utilizing African American newspapers that reflected the concerns of the community (both local and nationwide) and the everyday lives of the people they served. Take some time today to read and get to know GenealogyBank’s African American Newspaper Archives.
* Wisconsin Historical Society. “Freedom’s Journal, the First U.S. African-American Owned Newspaper” http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:4294963828-4294963805&dsRecordDetails=R:CS4415
** Gonzalez, Juan and Torres, Joseph. News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Verso, 2011. P. 64.
*** “Negro Newspapers and Periodicals in the United States: 1937.” Bulletin No. 1. http://wbhsi.net/~wendyplotkin/DeedsWeb/NegroNewspapersandPeriodicals.pdf