Photo Essay - African Americans in Journalism
Samuel E. Cornish (left) and John Brown Russwurm (right) with mastheads of Freedom's Journal and The Colored American (New York Public Library, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Black Culture; Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations)
Ever since Issue One of Freedom's Journal, the first black-owned and -operated newspaper in the United States, was published in New York on 16 March 1827, African American journalism has been synonymous with the struggle for civil rights. The paper was founded by Presbyterian minister Samuel Eli Cornish ( 1795–1858) and John Brown Russwurm (1799–1851), a Jamaican-born educator and abolitionist who graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine the previous year, becoming the third black American to hold a college degree. Prior to that, Russwurm began teaching in black schools in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, an experience which sparked his intellectual and political interests, inclining him towards activism. In particular, this period allowed him to meditate on the success of the Haitian Revolution in 1804, contrasting that nation's independence with the conditions of blacks living in the United States. His intellectual curiosity eventually guided him to Bowdoin, where he proclaimed in his commencement oration in 1826: "it is the irresistible course of events that all men, who have been deprived of their liberty, shall recover this previous portion of their indefeasible inheritance." With this conviction and commitment to liberty, Russwurm and Cornish began publishing Freedom's Journal in 1827, an endeavor committed to serving underrepresented black communities. The paper was short-lived due its founders' ideological differences and strained financial support. Although both men lamented the harsh conditions endured by most African Americans, they came to disagree on the best strategy of making black lives matter in the antebellum U.S. Believing that black people would never win equality in America, Russwurm supported their emigration to Africa. Cornish chose to stay in the U.S. to write and fight for change. Russwurm eventually moved to Monrovia, Liberia in 1829, where he became editor of West Africa's first black newspaper, the Liberia Herald, and served as governor of the Republic of Maryland, an African American colonial settlement in Liberia, until his death in 1851.
Frederick Douglass in an undated photograph (Library of Congress)
Though perhaps better known as a reformer and statesman, it was largely through his work as a journalist and publisher that Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) came to lead the abolitionist movement. Born into slavery on a Maryland farm to Harriet Bailey and, presumably, her white master, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey spent the first twenty years of his life being passed among slave owners around the Eastern Shore. At the age of eight he was sent to serve the family of Hugh Auld in Baltimore, a slaveholding city that also maintained a sizeable free black population. It was there that he learned to read and write at age twelve, exploring interests in oratory, language, and religion which gave way later in life to issues of race, class, gender, equality, and justice. As a teenager he was sent to a farm under the supervision of the "slave breaker" Edward Covey, an intimidating man with whom Douglass recalls a dramatic fight in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). The publication of his Narrative, a classic of the genre, secured Douglass's place in American literary history only seven years after his escape from slavery. With the support of William Lloyd Garrison, the white editor of abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, Douglass had already established himself as a sought-after lecturer before launching his own newspaper in 1847: the North Star, whose motto read: "Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren." Published out of the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York, the North Star signaled Douglass's pivot from Garrison's radical, anti-constitutionalist stance, toward the goal of abolition and political reform within the existing party system. The North Star merged with the Liberty Party Paper of white abolitionist Gerrit Smith of Syracuse, New York in 1851 to become Frederick Douglass's Paper and shifted to a monthly schedule in 1860. The Douglass Monthly ceased publication in 1863 as Douglass, like many black publishers of the era, faced financial difficulties keeping the paper afloat.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett in an undated photograph (Library of Congress)
Often described as a "militant" voice in support of civil rights, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) began her career in the same role as many early African American journalists: as a teacher. Following the death of her parents in 1878, Wells supported her six siblings in schoolrooms in and around Holly Springs, Mississippi, before relocating to Memphis, Tennessee in 1881. Her attempts to ride in a first-class ladies' car on the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railway in 1883 led to a victory in the lower courts (later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court), an episode she wrote about for the Baptist weekly Living Way. Contributing frequently to black publications across the nation, Wells used the pen name "Iola," a strategy which allowed her to publicly record and criticize injustices, pioneering the journalistic technique now known as investigative reporting. By 1887, black journalists were already referring to Wells as "The Princess of the Press": the first woman elected officer of the recently formed Negro Press Association, she became co-owner of the weekly Free Speech and Headlight in 1891, where she established herself as an educational reformer and anti-lynching activist. Her scathing editorials criticizing unjust school boards and segregated schools resulted in the loss of her teaching post, and her widely publicized protest campaigns prompted the destruction of the Free Speech offices in 1892 and her subsequent exile from Memphis under threat of death. Arriving in Brooklyn, Wells again turned to the pen as a means to share her anger and frustration, to argue against the conditions under which black people were meant to live, and to mobilize support for her various causes. Her columns in black publications such as Thomas Fortune's New York Age and Chicago's first black newspaper, the Conservator (which she would take over after marrying founder Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895), covered a wide range of issues including segregation, education, sexual politics, political and economic disenfranchisement, black women's suffrage, black militancy, and, most notably, lynching. Wells's editorials were also frequently expanded and distributed in the form of essays, pamphlets, and books, and her civil rights activism extended to her involvement in organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Negro Fellowship League, the Alpha Suffrage Club, and many other local institutions. An autobiography unfinished at the time of her death in 1931, Crusade for Justice, was published posthumously in 1970.
Ted Poston in the Office of War Information news bureau conversing with the chief of the general news desk, Elmer Roessner; Poston worked to ensure that black papers across the country received the same share of war news as other news outlets (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C. LC-DIG-fsa-8b06098)
The work of luminaries such as Russwurm, Cornish, Douglass, Wells, Philip Alexander Bell, and others in the nineteenth century broke ground for the emergence of a robust and professionalized African American press corps at the turn of the twentieth century. John Mitchell, Jr. founded the Richmond Planet in 1884, which was followed by Robert Sengstacke Abbott's Chicago Defender in 1905, Robert L. Vann's Pittsburgh Courier in 1907, Jamaican Marcus Garvey's Negro World in 1918, and the Associated Negro Press in 1919, all of which contributed to a golden age in African American journalism, as black reporters continued to be mostly excluded from white-owned publications. At age twelve, Theodore Roosevelt Augustus Major Poston (1906–1974), known as "Ted," witnessed his older brothers Robert and Ulysses help their father Ephraim, a teacher, found Kentucky's Hopkinsville Contender, which transformed into a partisan Democratic Party paper under the editorship of Ulysses, by then a veteran of Negro World, working on New York governor Al Smith's 1928 presidential campaign. By the time Ted joined his brother at the Contender, he had shown promise as a writer of short fiction at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial Normal College (later Tennessee State University), where he majored in English and Journalism. After a stint writing for the Courier, Poston rose to prominence as a member of the Harlem Renaissance publishing stories in The New Republic, and in 1931 joined the Amsterdam News, New York's leading black paper, where he reported on the trial of the Scottsboro Boys. He was fired for union organizing in 1935, but the New York Post took him on the following year, making Poston one of the first black journalists to write for a major mainstream newspaper. After working for the Office of War Information, in 1945 Poston returned to the Post, where he covered the race beat, a new focus of attention for many postwar American newspapers. His 1949 series on the "Little Scottsboro" trial in Groveland, Florida won him the George Polk Journalism Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Though he was never to win the latter, his retirement from the Post in 1972 came with a distinguished service medal from the city of New York—a small token for a reporter who was at the scene of Jackie Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball, and gave readers a front row view of Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the integration of Little Rock's Central High School, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other milestones of the civil rights era.
James Baldwin and musician Nina Simone (left) photographed together in the 1960s (Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library; Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
Like Poston, Harlem native James Baldwin (1924–1987) harbored literary ambitions from a young age, writing poetry and fiction at the same time that he preached at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly from 1938, the year he entered high school, until age seventeen, when an affair with an older man drove him to break with the church. Even as a boy, Baldwin felt a powerful dissonance between his sexuality and his religious fervor, and following his stepfather's death in 1944, he left Harlem permanently to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. His early attempts at fiction were encouraged by novelist Richard Wright, but it was not until he left the United States for Paris in 1948 that his writing truly began to flourish. Befriending the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, and Nina Simone, Baldwin spent most of the 1950s in Europe, where he wrote his first three novels, but also the essays which would be collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), originally published in major American magazines such as Harper's and The Partisan Review. In these dispatches from Europe, Baldwin leveraged his expatriate experience into a searing and sustained critique of racism in his native land: reevaluating the African American literary canon in "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone," and weighing his experience as a black man abroad against his Harlem youth in "Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown," "Equal in Paris," and "Stranger in the Village." The burgeoning civil rights movement brought Baldwin back to the U.S. in 1957; he met Martin Luther King, Jr. on assignment for The Partisan Review, and his commitment to social justice found him spending much of the 1960s chronicling the struggles of African Americans in the South for The Nation, Commentary, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and other leading publications, where he boldly blurred the lines between cultural criticism and political action. While his novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni's Room (1956), Another Country (1962), and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) remain seminal works of African American fiction, the influence on his journalism on younger generations of black writers and critics from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Zadie Smith may very well constitute his greatest legacy.
Crowds gathered outside of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral in Atlanta, Georgia, 5 April 1968; Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen stands at center, near the rear door of hearse; next to him is photojournalist Moneta Sleet, Jr. (Associated Press images)
Writing is not the only area of journalism in which African Americans have excelled. In fact, the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a black journalist came in the "Feature Photography" category, in 1969, for an image captured by Moneta Sleet, Jr. (1926–1996) of Bernice King sitting in the lap of her mother, Coretta Scott King, at the funeral of her father, Martin Luther King, Jr. (where Sleet is pictured at center above, next to Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen, Jr.). Sleet's employer, Ebony Magazine, was founded as an African American monthly by Chicago publisher John H. Johnson in 1945, but Sleet signed on a decade later, having already earned a Master's Degree in journalism at New York University, taught photography at Maryland State College, covered sports for the Amsterdam News, and published photo essays in John P. Davis's Our World magazine. The Pulitzer was the culmination of more than a decade following black history as it unfolded in the viewfinder of Sleet's camera: in Montgomery, Selma, on the National Mall, but also in Africa, where he documented the end of the colonial era and the celebratory rise of newly independent nations. In 1992, Sleet told AASC contributor Cherise Smith, "The type of photography I do is one of showing from my point of view. . . The area and the type of work I do is one of advocacy, I think, particularly during the civil rights movement because I was a participant just like everybody else. I just happened to be there with my camera. . . I felt and firmly believe that my mission was to photograph and to show the side of it that was the right side."
Anatole Broyard in an undated photograph (Anatole Broyard, New School Marketing and Communications records, New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive)
In 1971, Anatole Broyard (1920–1990) was hired as a daily book critic for The New York Times, and until his death in 1990, he remained one of the gatekeepers of the Manhattan literary scene—a rare privilege for a black writer in the mid-twentieth century. However, few of Broyard's colleagues, friends, or even family members, and almost none of his readers knew of his African American ancestry until 1997, when AASC editor in chief Henry Louis Gates, Jr. revealed this information in an essay for The New Yorker titled "White Like Me." Born to a Creole family in New Orleans in 1920, Broyard grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, attending Boys High School and then Brooklyn College, where he was introduced to the European literature and cinema that were to influence his aesthetic preferences as a critic. Broyard passed as white as captain of an all-black stevedore battalion during World War II, an identity he maintained after the war, enrolling at the New School for Social Research and immersing himself in the bohemian culture of 1940s Greenwich Village. A brutal critic alternately praised by editor John Leonard as gifted in the art of literary seduction, Broyard's posthumous memoir Kafka Was the Rage (1993) remains a stirring account of downtown Manhattan's postwar counterculture. Though the disclosure of Broyard's secret gave cause to criticism and rumor (various critics have suggested that the protagonist of Philip Roth's 2000 novel The Human Stain was based on Broyard, which Roth repeatedly denied), it also reconnected Broyard's daughter Bliss with a heritage of which she was previously unaware—a subject she wrote about in her 2007 memoir, One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets.
Jamaica Kincaid at a speaking engagement at Harvard University in November 2001 (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office, © President and Fellows of Harvard College)
Another African American writer known primarily for her fiction, Jamaica Kincaid' (1949– ) contributions to journalism are no less innovative or significant. Born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John's, Antigua, Kincaid left the Caribbean for New York in 1965, where she worked as a nanny before enrolling at Westchester Community College, Franconia College, and the New School for Social Research. A job at Art Direction magazine lured her into the publishing world, and by the early 1970s, she was contributing to The Village Voice and Ingénue under her nom de plume, which she chose in 1973 to distance her writing from her past, but also to match her keen fashion sense. As she later told O, The Oprah Magazine: "I wanted to look like the type of African-American girl I saw in the pages of Ebony magazine in the '60s. Like a sexy church lady—proper, but not docile." In 1974, New Yorker writer George W.S. Trow invited Kincaid to accompany him to the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, which he intended to write about for the magazine's "Talk of the Town" section. Kincaid's notes landed on the desk of editor William Shawn, who published them under a shared byline as "West Indian Weekend" in the September 30 issue of the magazine. Remembering her former editor and father-in-law (Kincaid was married to Shawn's son Allen from 1979 to 2002) upon his death in 1992, she wrote, "I thought Mr. Shawn would ask George to go over what I had put down and put it into proper writing, but instead everything that I had written appeared in the magazine just as I had written it. And when I saw that, I had a shock, because I realized then what my writing would be: the thoughts in my head, the way I thought of something, expressed in words." Shawn hired Kincaid as a staff writer and featured columnist in 1976, and in 1978 she published her first work of fiction in the magazine, where she continued to contribute fiction and reported pieces on gardening through the 1990s. In addition to five novels, four books of nonfiction, and a collection of short stories, Kincaid published a collection of her New Yorker journalism, Talk Stories, in 2001. A member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Kincaid's many honors include the 1985 Guggenheim Award for Fiction, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a Prix Femina étranger for My Brother (1997), and the 2017 Dan David Prize in Literature.
Oprah Winfrey in her studio after a morning broadcast in Chicago on 18 December 1985 (Associated Press images)
As new media technologies drove journalism from the confines of print to radio in the 1920s and television after World War II, African Americans like Max Robinson fought for recognition within these new media forms. And while Oprah Winfrey (1954– ) was not the first black broadcast journalist, she has undoubtedly become the most famous. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Winfrey survived a rough childhood in Milwaukee and Nashville. In the latter city she started reading the news part-time at WVOL, a local black radio station, while senior class president at Nashville High School. She worked evenings at WTVF-TV as a student at Tennessee State University, which she left several credits shy of graduating in 1976 to anchor the evening news at Baltimore's ABC affiliate, WJZ-TV. It was after Winfrey was moved to the station's morning talk show, People Are Talking, that her career really took off, and her empathetic, subjective style of interviewing caught the attention of ABC's Chicago affiliate, WLS-TV, who hired Winfrey to host their A.M. Chicago program in 1983. Within just two years, Winfrey had transformed herself into a local celebrity, and A.M. Chicago transitioned to a one-hour format with a new title in 1985: The Oprah Winfrey Show. On the heels of her Oscar-nominated performance in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's 1982 novel The Color Purple, Winfrey's show was nationally syndicated in 1986, quickly becoming the top-rated talk show on television, and ushering a wave of talk shows into national syndication. No mere celebrity, by the end of the 1980s, Winfrey was already a media mogul, founding Harpo Productions in 1986, and winning the International Television and Radio Society's Broadcaster of the Year Award in 1988. Winfrey's accomplishments have only snowballed since: starting Oprah's Book Club in 1996; co-founding Oxygen Media, Inc. and starring in Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved (1987) in 1998; publishing the first issue of O, The Oprah Magazine in 2000; and in 2003, Forbes magazine named her the world's richest entertainer (after Spielberg), making her the first African American woman billionaire. The Oprah Winfrey Show went off the air after twenty-five years in 2011, but Winfrey continues to be prolific in her philanthropic work, and in 2013, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Gwen Ifill in an undated photograph (MacNeil/Lehrer Productions)
Gwen Ifill (1955–2016) also made a name for herself on television, but her career as a journalist started as a food critic for the Boston Herald American. Born in Queens, New York to immigrants from Barbados and Panama, Ifill grew up watching the nightly news with her parents and siblings, but as she told PBS NewsHour, "I always knew I wanted to be a journalist, and my first love was newspapers." After several years at the Herald American, Ifill went on to cover politics for the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Washington Post, and The New York Times's Washington bureau. In 1994 she was hired by NBC News, where she reported on Capitol Hill, appearing regularly as a guest on Meet the Press and many other TV news programs. PBS hired Ifill to host Washington Week in Review in 1999, making her the first black woman to host a national political talk show on television, and in 2013 named her co-anchor, with Judy Woodruff, of NewsHour. In 2004 she became the first African American woman to moderate a vice-presidential debate and in 2016, she and Woodruff became the first team of women to moderate a presidential debate, between Democratic Party candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Ifill's only book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, was published on Barack Obama's Inauguration Day in 2009. Prior to her death in 2016, Ifill received a Peabody Award for her work on Washington Week, more than twenty honorary doctorates from universities around the world, and many prestigious honors from the National Association of Black Journalists, the NAACP, the Women's Media Center, and the National Press Club, among others.
Dean Baquet at the 2018 Pulitzer Prizes Awards Ceremony (CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Although New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet (1956– ) has claimed that he became a journalist by accident, his illustrious career had already taken off while he was still in college, so he never bothered graduating. Born in New Orleans to a family of restaurateurs, Baquet traded the Big Easy for the Big Apple after high school, enrolling at Columbia University in New York. After three years in Manhattan and summers spent interning at his hometown daily, he dropped out of school and took a full-time position with the New Orleans States-Item, which merged with the Times-Picayune in 1980. It was there that he honed his investigative skills: uncovering corruption, police shakedowns, organized crime, and racial discrimination in the New Orleans housing market. Baquet moved to the Chicago Tribune as a reporter in 1984; he was promoted to associate metro editor, and after four years he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his work investigating corruption in the city council. In 1990 he was hired by The New York Times, working his way up from metro reporter to special projects editor, deputy metro editor, and finally, chief of the national desk. The Los Angeles Times recruited Baquet as managing editor in 2000, but his immense successes in elevating the paper's reputation were not enough to avoid losing readers and advertising revenue, which led the parent Tribune Company to insist on devastating budget cuts and layoffs. Baquet became the first black editor in chief of a major U.S. newspaper when he briefly took charge of the L.A. Times, but he too was forced out in 2006. The New York Times hired Baquet back almost immediately as Washington bureau chief, and after three years as managing editor, he made history again, becoming the first African American to top the paper's masthead when he replaced Jill Abramson (the Times's first female executive editor) in 2014.
Roxane Gay accepting the Freedom to Write Award at the PEN Center USA's 25th Annual Literacy Awards Festival, 16 November 2015, in Beverly Hills, California (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision for PEN Center/Associated Press images)
If one writer's career can be said to have benefitted from the changes facing journalism in the twenty-first century—from print to digital, news to commentary, and facts to analysis—that writer may be Roxane Gay (1974– ). Born in Omaha, Nebraska to a family of Haitian descent, Gay has written prolifically about race, gender, sexuality, feminism, fatphobia, identity, culture, politics, and the many intersections of these and other issues across genres and media forms. From 2010 to 2018 Gay, who earned a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University, held teaching positions at Eastern Illinois University and Purdue University and was involved in a wide range of creative projects. In 2011 she founded Tiny Hardcore Press, a "micropress" that produces books designed to fit in the palm of one's hand. A collection of short stories, Ayiti, was published in 2011, followed by two books in 2014 that brought her broad acclaim: The Untamed State, a novel about race, family, and violence; and Bad Feminist, a collection of essays exploring feminism, femininity, humanity, and empathy. Since, Gay has approached her frequent columns for The Guardian and The New York Times with the passionate rigor of a public intellectual, no less afraid to battle her detractors on Twitter than in print. In recent years, Gay has been a voice for social justice in a diverse range of media forms. In 2016 she and poet Yona became the first African American women lead authors of a Marvel comic book, Black Panther: World of Wakanda. She also launched a partnership with online publishing platform Medium, Unruly Bodies (2018), which collects essays investigating the multifaceted relationships between peoples' bodies and selves.