Newspapers are a huge and important part of our collection here at the American Antiquarian Society. They take up over five miles of shelving here. From establishment papers like the New York Times to amateur prints, preserving newspapers gives readers a glimpse into the mundane and day-to-day, as well as insight on relevant social issues during the centuries where there was no Twitter to catch up on the world’s goings on. But newspapers during the nineteenth century also served as a platform for social change and activists, including for African American abolitionists like Peter Humphries Clark. The Newspapers and Periodicals Department at the Society has discovered what is believed to be the only known copies of Clark’s newspaper, Herald of Freedom. These issues were published on June 2 (Volume 1, Number 1) and June 23 (Volume 1, Number 3), 1855.
Peter H. Clark is most known for his abolitionist speaking and writing. Born on March 29, 1829, in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was the son of a successful barber and became the first teacher hired to Cincinnati’s independent Black public schools in 1849. In 1866, Clark founded Ohio’s first public high school for Black students, Gaines High School, where he served as principal and educated a generation of Black teachers. He also ran for Congress in 1878, representing the Socialist Labor Party for America. For this reason, he is remembered as the United States’ first Black socialist.[i]
Clark’s storied life as an abolitionist, activist, and orator began with his childhood in Cincinnati. Growing up, he was a member of the city’s African American elite — but his privileged upbringing did not shelter him from the harsh realities of racial inequality. As Dr. Nikki M. Taylor, professor of history at Howard University and author of America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark, explains, Clark’s place in Cincinnati society only made him more aware of racial and economic disparities. Clark witnessed multiple racist mob attacks on the African American community before the age of thirteen; jointly, he witnessed the members of his community standing up for themselves against these mobs. It was in the streets, classrooms, and social circles of the city where Clark found the building blocks for his Black nationalist, socialist, and abolitionist beliefs.
Clark was a member of the Republican Party until around 1877, when he officially turned his political allegiance to socialism. This change was heavily influenced by German radicals whom he met in Cincinnati in 1848. The Germans, fleeing the Revolution of 1848, settled among Cincinnati’s large population of German immigrants and brought with them a revolutionary way of thinking. This small group of immigrants were known as “Forty-Eighters” and embraced concepts including abolition, integration, natural rights, and socialism. While some of the Forty-Eighters were “quite racist and conservative,” as Dr. Taylor notes in her book, Clark concluded that the radicals were “’the only freedom-loving people of this city’.” Clark found solidarity among the German radicals and found his own ideas of socialism and abolition challenged. It was with the Germans that he began his journey to becoming America’s first Black socialist.
Thomas Paine was another important influence in Clark’s life and on his political beliefs. Clark embraced Unitarianism and deism, the same as Paine. He notably faced controversy because of these religious beliefs; namely, that humans, not God, were responsible for suffering and social ills. Cincinnati was at the time deeply Protestant, and most residents considered any criticism of the Bible to be heresy. In 1853, Clark gave an address at a conference commemorating Paine’s life and writings hosted by the German radicals. While he reportedly never spoke about Unitarianism in the classroom, his public support of the liberal religion was enough. Clark was eventually terminated from his teaching position for the 1853-54 school year because of his outspoken support of humanism and Paine’s controversial ideas of religious and social tolerance.
In 1855, Clark began a brief stint publishing the weekly abolitionist journal known as Herald of Freedom. The paper quickly failed, and, after publishing it for only five months, Clark moved on to become the editor of a Kentucky journal and a staff member at Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Because of Herald of Freedom’s short lifespan and limited publication, original copies beyond the previously unrecorded one found by Vincent L. Golden, Curator of Newspapers and Periodicals, are not known to exist. The only known samples of writing were preserved in copies of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s Boston abolitionist journal.
A brief promotion for Herald of Freedom was published in the Boston Investigator on June 27, 1855. The short writing, catalogued in our collection, compliments Clark’s editorial skills and lists the price for the weekly publication as “$2 a year, payable always in advance.” Interested readers could contact Clark directly via mail to purchase a subscription.
Herald of Freedom was one of many nineteenth century Black newspapers that had trouble staying afloat. Black papers and journals struggled to find loyal subscribers and make enough money to remain in print. Dr. Taylor notes that Herald of Freedom suffered from “limited and delinquent subscriptions,” netting just sixteen dollars a week. Clark attempted to use his own funds to supplement the paper’s publication, but it would not be enough. Despite their limited capabilities, when preserved, these Black publications provide invaluable, first-person insight into the African American freedom struggle in the 1800s.
Clark lived a remarkable life as an activist and speaker. This article only captures a small part of his legacy. He supported Black emigration and the Underground Railroad. He became a voice for racial uplift and Black progress in Cincinnati schools. He spoke at many national Black conferences, and he lived through antebellum, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Post-reconstruction. Through his life, he remained a voice for Black freedom and independence. While a small part of his life story, the Herald of Freedom is an important insight into Clark’s political leanings and writings. We are excited to have the only known copy in our collection for scholars and readers to utilize.
[i] The information on Clark’s life and legacy reported here was found in Dr. Nikki M. Taylor’s book, America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark. Those interested in Clark’s remarkable life can read Dr. Taylor’s book here at the AAS library.