Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

I

The Black press in Pennsylvania played a leading role in the struggle for Afro-American freedom in the pre-Civil War period. After the war, Afro-American tabloids in the Commonwealth were among the first newspapers to call for the civil rights and enfranchise­ment of Afro-Americans in the South and North. Fre­quently, editors of these newspapers became elected politicians and they used their newspapers as platforms for their views.

Before the Civil War, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh were attractive urban centers for Afro-Americans. In spite of the discriminatory practices in these commun­ities, they found that they could engage in business and pursue their own social and cultural interests. In Phila­delphia before the 1830’s, there was already evidence of a viable Afro-American community. The people built churches, organized their own schools, and supported several newspapers. During the 1830’s and 1840’s Afro­-American newspapers were also published in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. After the Civil War many freedmen from the South were attracted to Pittsburgh because of the job opportunities there and the hope for a less oppressive way of life. The city became the home of the Pittsburgh Courier, the leading Afro-American newspaper in the nation at that time.

For content, Afro-American editors and publishers at first relied on newsletters, editorials, meeting notes, col­umns on race elevation, news about important legal cases, news about social events, and essays on civil rights and partisan politics. At first revenue was obtained from sub­scriptions, but later the sale of advertising provided sup­plementary funds. The editors and publishers were, on the whole, dedicated persons who chose journalism as a vehicle to help alleviate the oppression of their people. Some of the journalistic pioneers were well to do and some were not, but all of them had to struggle to keep their publications in operation.

The First Afro-American newspaper in Pennsylvania, the National Reformer, began publication on August 31, 1838, as the organ of the American Moral Reform Society. William Whipper, a wealthy Black activist and merchant in Philadelphia, was the editor. A notice to the readers in the first edition explained that it was necessarily made up mostly of minutes and reports, but future editions would contain original and selected articles on education, temper­ance, the economy, and universal liberty. Like the other early Black publications in Pennsylvania and other states, it was an important instrument for the anti-slavery and Afro-American protest movements. William Whipper, like many of his contemporaries, used journalism as the instru­ment to express Black determination for freedom and equality. (Whipper’s partner, Stephen Smith, a wealthy Afro-American businessman and supporter of various freedom movements, contributed articles to Freedoms Journal, the first Black newspaper in America.)

Two other Afro-American newspapers published in Philadelphia in the 1830’s and 1840’s were the Colored American and the Demosthenian Shield. The former was based in New York but had a Philadelphia edition, which circulated also in West Chester, Unionville, Kennet Square, East Fellowfield, York, Harrisburg, Carlisle, and Chambers­burg. The contents of the Colored American included European news, a children’s column, educational articles, inducements to register and vote, and calls to Blacks to elevate themselves. It also contained a large number of abolitionist articles by anti-slavery advocates in Britain and other foreign countries. While the Colored American and the Demosthenian Shield appeared weekly, the Nation­al Reformer was a monthly newspaper.

While the Black press in the State started in Philadelphia, Afro-American newspapers also emerged in Pittsburgh. Perhaps the first one to be published in Pittsburgh was the Mystery. Its editor was Martin R. Delany, at one time a co-editor of Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star. He was one of the most dynamic Afro-American leaders in the nineteenth century. In his lifetime he was a physician, abolitionist, explorer in Africa, major in the United States Army, and leader of nationalist causes for his people. Delany was well known in Pittsburgh not only as the editor of the Mystery, but as a skillful doctor who saved many persons’ lives in the cholera epidemic there in 1854.

After the Mystery began publication in 1843, Delany quickly gained a reputation as a bold leader who was not afraid to speak out for the rights of his people. Speaking to a predominantly white audience one day in Allegheny City near Pittsburgh on the subject of the rights of fugi­tive slaves, Delany said,

I care not who he may be, whether constable or sherriff, magistrate or even judge of the Supreme Court – nay, let it be he who sanctioned this act to become a law, surrounded by his cabinet as his body­guard, with the Declaration of Independence waving above his head as his banner, and the Constitution of his country upon his breast as a shield – if he crosses the threshold of my door, and I do not lay him life­less at my feet, I hope the grave may refuse my body a resting place, and righteous Heaven my spirit a home. No! he cannot enter that house and we both live.

Although his candor made him a popular editor in Pennsylvania, Delany decided to attend Harvard University to complete his study of medicine. Hence, he sold the Mystery to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1848, which had its headquarters in Philadelphia. The Church changed the name of the newspaper to the Christian Herald and later the Christian Recorder. This church paper is still published today. It is the oldest, continuously pub­lished Afro-American newspaper in the United States. In Delany’s time it contained articles on religious activities among Blacks, the abolition of slavery, and advocacy of the legitimate rights of Afro-Americans as citizens of the United States.

 

II

Between 1848 and 1880 no new Afro-American news­papers were established in Pennsylvania. Several develop­ments may account for this: 1) Many Blacks who feared the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act emigrated to Ontario, Canada. 2) Once the Civil War had begun, Afro­American men joined the Union Army to contribute to the freedom of their brethren in the South, and some remained in the region during the Reconstruction period. 3) Finally, by 1880 a new generation of Black youths were taking advantage of the limited opportunities to get an education and work in some of the growing in­dustries in Pennsylvania. This was mainly true in the Pittsburgh area. The Black population in the city doubled between 1870 and 1880; this was the result of migrants from the South seeking jobs in the steel mills of western Pennsylvania. Many felt that employment in the North would allow them better opportunities. Blacks also migrated to Harrisburg and other urban communities in the state.

Between 1880 and 1900 several new newspapers ap­peared. There were nine in Pittsburgh, three in Harrisburg, and new ones replaced their predecessors in Philadelphia. The Times was published in Harrisburg from 1880 to 1895. A circular issued January 21, 1890, by the editor, J. W. Simpson, states: “Having secured control [sic] of the Harrisburg Times, a weekly journal of long standing, we propose to continue the publication, devoted to the interest of our people in the central part of the State.” Besides general news and literary items, the circular said the paper offered church news, social meeting notes, and “the ideas and expressions of our leading Colored men and others in reference to our progress and future as a people.” Simpson said The Times was open to the discussion of all questions pertaining to the race. By 1914 two more Afro-American newspapers appeared in Harrisburg; they were the State Journal and the Progressive News. However, by the end of World War I the most prominent Afro-American newspapers in Pennsylvania were published in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

 

III

The most prominent Afro-American newspaper in Philadelphia in the twentieth century was the Tribune. Its pub­lisher and editor was Christopher James Perry, a Black journalist who worked for a white-owned Philadelphia daily, The Mercury. Perry was the editor of the “colored department” of the Mercury, and he wrote a column called “Items on the Wing.” Dissatisfied with the limited space assigned for news about his people, Perry decided to establish his own newspaper. When he started the Tribune, in 1884 he was twenty-eight years of age. The success of the paper was due, however, to his genius for organization, his journalistic skills, and his political astuteness. These qualities were complemented by the evolution of a larger educated Black populace in Philadelphia, the migration of freedmen from the South to the North, and an increase in the business and religious activities of Afro-Americans in the city. All helped to increase the variety of news items and advertisements in the Tribune and assured Perry of a large circulation for the paper.

Jack Saunders, a longtime journalist for the Tribune, noted that Perry took advantage of the desire of migrants in Philadelphia who wished to learn more about events in their former home. He used extensive contacts in southern communities to obtain news items the new Philadelphians were eager to read. In turn they sent copies of the Tribune to their brothers, sisters, and cousins to come to Phila­delphia. Thus the Tribune became an instrument for Afro-American socio-economic advancement, a forum for self expression, and a mirror of the lives of Blacks in the North and the South.

After Perry’s death in 1921, the paper was operated by his family. His daughter, Bertha, married a lawyer, E. Washington Rhodes. Both of them played a major role in the continued growth and success of the Tribune. She was managing editor and editor of the women’s section, and largely responsible for encouraging Black women to seek a career in journalism. Rhodes first sold advertise­ments for the paper but succeeded Christopher Perry, Jr. as publisher and editor in 1941.

By the eve of World War II, the columns of the Tribune were used to encourage Afro-Americans to run for political offices in city and the State. They were urged to campaign for seats on the Board of Education, the city Council, and judgeships. Rhodes also entered the political arena. He became the first Afro-American United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and in 1938 he was elected as a Republican representative to the Pennsyl­vania legislature. In addition to his political activities, Rhodes was active in scores of civic, fraternal, and social organizations. He also founded the Philadelphia Tribune Charities to aid the needy. By the end of World War II, the Perry family had succeeded in building a major journal­istic enterprise in Philadelphia, one that helped to prepare many young Afro-Americans for journalistic careers in the years after the war. Other newspapers were published in Philadelphia from the latter part of the century on, but none of them overshadowed the achievements of the Tribune.

While several Black newspapers were established in Philadelphia, new ones appeared in Pittsburgh in the first decade of the twentieth century. The most successful newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, was started by Robert L. Vann in 1910. In time, the Courier had even greater prominence than the Tribune. It became the largest Afro­American newspaper in the United States. Separate editions were published in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and ten more cities in the country. It also circulated in Africa, South America, and various Caribbean Islands. Vann was a lawyer with some journalistic experience. He used the skills ac­quired in both areas to make the Courier an instrument for the civil and political rights of Afro-Americans through­out the nation. As a tribute to the pioneering work of Perry and Vann, the Tribune and the Courier continue today as viable newspapers. They typify the best efforts in Afro-American journalism.

 

Conclusion

The emergence of the Black Press in Pennsylvania was a significant development. All of the newspapers published from 1838 to 1940 served as vital communication links between various Afro-American communities throughout the Commonwealth. They also allowed the members of these communities to learn more about the plight of their brethren beyond Pennsylvania. Because of the dis­criminatory practices of the white press, the Black press gave Afro-Americans the opportunity to express their hopes and fears about developments in the new nation, and to point out the flagrant inconsistencies in Ameri­can democracy. The Black Press was used also to high­light and emphasize the social and cultural institutions of Afro-Americans. Finally, Afro-American newspapers contributed greatly to the growing awareness of the need to protect the constitutional and human rights of all Ameri­cans, regardless of their color.

 

 

Afro-American Press in Pennsylvania, 1838-1940

Bryn Mawr

  • The Defender (Also a Philadelphia Edition), 1897-1903

Harrisburg

  • Advocate Verdict, 1887-1920
  • Harrisburg State Journal, 1882-1885; as Harrisburg Home Journal, 1882-1883
  • National Progress, 1871-1872
  • Pennsylvania Post, 1914-1920
  • Progressive News, 1912-1914
  • Sentinel Gazette, 1895-1899
  • Times, 1880-1895

Mansfield Valley

  • Commonwealth, 1887-1892

Philadelphia

  • Afro-American (published in Frankford), 1902-1904
  • Philadelphia Afro-American, 1934-
  • Afro-American Press, 1920-1922
  • American, 1919-1923
  • American Herald, 1901-1908
  • Astonisher, ?
  • Caret (Also known as Sunday Caret), 1908-1913
  • The Chat, ?
  • Christian Banner, 1898-1920
  • Christian Recorder (publishing department 1816), 1852-
  • Christian Review, 1913-
  • Church Guide, ?
  • Church Review, 1913-
  • Citizen, ?
  • Colored American (Philadelphia Edition), 1837-?
  • Colored World, 1915-1916
  • Constitution, ?
  • Courant, 1901-1920
  • Defender (Philadelphia Edition), 1897-?
  • Demosthenian Shield, 1840-?
  • Ecno, 1891-1892
  • Elevator, ?
  • Herald Mission, 1920-1922
  • Home Extension, ?
  • Independent, 1895-1900?
  • Independent Advocate, 1891-1895
  • Masonic Herald, 1879-1882
  • Mission Herald, 1930-1932
  • Missionary Seer, 1898-1910
  • National Public Record, 1901-1908
  • National Reformer, 1838-1840
  • Odd Fellow’s Journal, 1896-1917
  • Philadelphia Courier Journal, 1932-1936
  • Philadelphia Echo, ?
  • Philadelphia Independent, 1931-19
  • Philadelphia Protector, 1920-?
  • Picture News Weekly, 1936-1938
  • Pilot, 1907-1915
  • Pittsburgh Courier (Philadelphia Edition), 19?-?
  • Prophet, ?
  • Public Journal, 1920-1931
  • Public Record, ?
  • Sentinel, 1884-1892
  • Sentinel, 1902-1903
  • Smithford Press, 1905-1906
  • Solid Rock Herald, 1901-1908
  • Southwestern Christian Advocate, 1870-?
  • Spokesman, 1930-1932
  • Standard Echo, 1881-1900
  • State Journal, 1888-?
  • State Journal, 1890-1895
  • Sunday Caret (See Caret)
  • Sunday Journal, 1895-1897
  • Philadelphia Tribune, 1884-
  • Retrospective View, ?
  • Volunteer, ?
  • Weekly Messenger, ?
  • Weekly Standard Echo, 1893-?
  • Witness, 1918-1920

Pittsburgh

  • Afro-American Presbyterian, 1887-1890
  • Afro-American Spokesman, 1889-1891
  • Afro-Dispatch, 1893-?
  • Broad Axe, 1896-?
  • Christian Herald (later the Recorder), 1848-
  • Colored Citizen, 1880-1884
  • Crier, 1933-1938
  • Crusader, 1893-?
  • Independent, 1900-1906
  • Industrial Register, 1920-1922
  • Journal, 1893-1896
  • Kodesh Herald, 1941-1942
  • Little Voice, 1940-?
  • Mystery, 1843-1848
  • News, 1882-1885
  • Pioneer, 1909-?
  • Pittsburgh American, 1918-1924
  • Pittsburgh Courier, 1910-
  • Pittsburgh Examiner, 1907-?
  • Pittsburgh Examiner, 1930-1934
  • Pittsburgh Guard, 1926-1929
  • Pittsburgh Independent, 1930-?
  • Ploughshare, 1900-1901
  • Progressive Afro-American, 1906-1910
  • Smith’s Broad Axe, 1885-1892
  • Triangle Advocate, 1940-1943
  • Vanguard, ?
  • Western Enterprise, 1896-1897

Rochester

  • Plaindealer, 1905-1908

Steelton

  • Steelton Press, 1890-1916

Uniontown

  • Journal, 1893-1895
  • Courier Digest, 1936-1946
  • Journal, 1926-1927

Wilkes-Barre

  • Advocate, 1900-1922
  • Voice of the People, 1899-1901

 

Justine Rector received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. Currently, she is a researcher/reporter for the Wilmington News Journal and an instructor in journalism at Temple University. She also hosts Philadelphia television WPVI’s news program, “Third World View.”