I get so excited when I come across what I call genealogical “hidden gems.” Old newspapers, correspondence and letters from long ago, family pictures with identifying info, receipts, logs and family Bibles all help us to understand the trials and tribulations our forefathers went through so that we can be where we are today. Today, while exploring the Ned R. McWherter Library at the University of Memphis for the first time, I discovered a virtual gold mine – their microfilm library is amazing! Not only do they have federal census records going back to the 1790s, they have films of various newspapers from across the country, Letters and correspondence from the Secretary of the Navy and the War Department during WWI and WWII. There are even Prisoner of War correspondence for the first world war. There are documents on Nazi Germany, letters from U.S. presidents, correspondence and files from the NAACP and CORE organizations. And let’s not forget the FBI files on Martin Luther King, Jr.! This list doesn’t even begin to cover their extensive holdings. One title I was surprised to find was several microfilms on African American newspapers from the 1930s.
The newspaper I found was called the Afro American and it published out of Washington D.C. I’m not sure of when it began but the issue I found listed on its masthead that it was its 41st year. It ended about 1937.
I guess the reason I was so surprised is I never considered the notion that African Americans had newspapers at that point in history which solely catered to African Americans. I know, as a genealogist that’s a pretty lame attitude to have, and perhaps, well okay, definitely a whole lot of naivety on my part.
Since the first newspaper or rather news pamphlet was published in the late 1400s in Germany, the power of the press has been one to reckon with. It was a way for the people to pass information back and forth. Merchants used it to talk about their goods, governments used it to reach the general population, people used it to discuss social customs and items of human interest.
One such paper, the London Gazette, began its publication on Nov. 7, 1665 and is reportedly, the world’s oldest, continuously printed newspaper. Today, it is still published daily. Here in American, Boston saw the birth of the first newspaper in 1690. That first publication was called the Publick Occurrences (sic). It was immediately shut down, its publisher arrested and all copies supposedly destroyed because it was published without authority. I guess they didn’t understand freedom of the press back then. Its history remained hidden until the only known surviving copy was discovered in the British Library in 1845. Since that first paper came on scene bringing American into the fourth estate, newspapers have been telling the story of America.
And so it was also with African American run papers.
What I’ve actually learned today is African Americans have had their own newspapers since the mid-1800s. The Elevator out of San Francisco, the Colored American in Washington D.C. and the Freeman in Indianapolis, Ind., and others have all played a part in telling the story of a too often silent or rather, silenced history. Catering to their audience the same as their white counterparts, these trail blazers told the story white Americans did not want to hear. The stories about what was going on in African American neighborhoods – the celebrations of life, the beginnings of entrepreneurship, the recordings of African American history and the injustices suffered.
If you are interested in learning more about African American newspapers and the role they played in America’s history, check out your local universities and colleges. You might be surprised at what’s hidden there.