Samuel Cornish, John Russwurm, and the Early Black Press

In March 1827, Rev. Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm co-founded Freedom’s Journal in New York City. It served as the first African-American newspaper in the United States and commemorated the 50th anniversary-year of the first American anti-slavery statutes in the 1777 Vermont Constitution. One of their primary objectives in starting Freedom’s Journal was to combat the negative impressions of Africa and African-Americans in the New York press. Although the newspaper only lasted two years, Cornish and Russwurm were able to raise significant doubts in the minds of many whites about the perceived racial inferiority of black Americans.

As co-editors of the newspaper, Cornish and Russwurm were strong believers in the idea that ancient Egypt and Ethiopia constituted bastions of African high culture. In other words, ancient Egypt and Ethiopia were on par with ancient Greece and Rome in terms of their contributions to the growth of Western civilization, especially regarding art and architecture. In the 1820s, however, there was an emerging call for free African Americans to emigrate from the United States and recolonize Africa. Even though Cornish and Russwurm stood mostly opposed to this call, they welcomed pro-colonization opinions in their newspaper. The main problem they saw with colonization was that it appeared to be a panacea for Southern slaveholders who viewed free blacks as an existential threat to slavery.

At the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), original printings of Freedom’s Journal are held in two volumes. Each volume covers a designated period of months over the two-year span that the newspaper was printed. AAS also maintains portions of Freedom’s Journal on microfilm and has access to digitized versions of the newspaper. And although Cornish’s involvement with the newspaper ended after just six months of publication, he and Russwurm were careful enough to save many of its original printings for posterity, as it is one of the best preserved early black newspapers.

Other early African American serial publications in AAS collections can be found by searching the online catalog for the genre term “African American newspapers” or “African American periodicals.”

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