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Born John Brown to a slave mother and a white American merchant father in Jamaica, he became John Russwurm when his stepmother demanded that his father acknowledge by name his paternity. Sent to Quebec for schooling, Russwurm was taken by his father to Portland, Maine, in 1812. He attended Hebron Academy in Hebron, Maine, and graduated in 1826 from Bowdoin College, one of the first black graduates of an American college. In his graduation speech he advocated the resettlement of American blacks to Haiti.

Moving to New York, New York, in 1827, Russwurm helped found Freedom's Journal with Samuel E(li) Cornish. It was the first black-owned and black-printed newspaper in the United States. The paper employed itinerant black abolitionists and urged an end to Southern slavery and Northern inequality. In February of 1829 he stopped publishing the paper and accepted a position ...