The Power of the Press: Black American News Publications in the Jim Crow Era

The Chicago Defender newspaper with headline "PUSHing Forward"
It was only in 2019 that the historic Chicago Defender newspaper announced its move to a digital-only format.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Throughout United States history, the press has played a significant role in social conflicts and political events. In the Black American community, newspapers have for many years played a vital role in fighting racism and social injustice.

As early as 1827, writers John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish published the Freedom's Journal for the freed Black American community. Freedom's Journal was also the first Black American news publication. Following in Russwurm and Cornish's footsteps, abolitionists such as  Frederick Douglass and Mary Ann Shadd Cary published newspapers to campaign against enslavement. 

Following the Civil War, Black American communities throughout the United States desired a voice that would not only expose injustices, but also celebrate everyday events such as weddings, birthdays, and charity events. Black newspapers cropped up in southern towns and northern cities. Below are three of the most prominent papers during the Jim Crow Era. 

The Chicago Defender

  • Published: 1905
  • Founding Publisher: Robert S. Abbott
  • Mission: The Defender utilized the tactics of yellow journalism to expose racism and oppression that Black Americans faced throughout the United States.

Robert S. Abbott published the first edition of The Chicago Defender with an investment of twenty-five cents. He used his landlord’s kitchen to print copies of the paper—a collection of news clippings from other publications and Abbott's own reporting. By 1916, The Chicago Defender boasted a circulation of more than 15,000 and was considered one of the best Black American newspapers in the United States. The news publication went on to have a circulation of over 100,000, a health column, and a full page of comic strips.

From the outset, Abbott employed yellow journalistic tactics including sensational headlines and dramatic news accounts of Black American communities throughout the nation. The tone of the paper was militant and referred to Black Americans, not as "black" or "negro" but as "the race." Graphic images of lynchings, assaults, and other acts of violence against Black Americans were published prominently in the paper. As an initial supporter of The Great Migration, The Chicago Defender published train schedules and job listings in its advertising pages as well as editorials, cartoons, and news articles to persuade Black Americans to relocate to northern cities. Through its coverage of the Red Summer of 1919, the publication used these race riots to campaign for anti-lynching legislation.

Writers such as Walter White and Langston Hughes served as columnists; Gwendolyn Brooks published one of her earliest poems in the pages of the Chicago Defender.

The California Eagle

  • Published: 1910
  • Founding Publisher(s): John and Charlotta Bass
  • Mission: Initially, the publication was to help Black American migrants settle in the West by providing housing and job listings. Throughout the Great Migration, the publication focused on challenging injustice and racist practices in the United States.

The Eagle led campaigns against racism in the motion picture industry. In 1914, publishers of The Eagle printed a series of articles and editorials protesting the negative portrayals of Black Americans in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Other newspapers joined the campaign and as a result, the film was banned in several communities across the nation.

On the local level, The Eagle used its printing presses to expose police brutality in Los Angeles. The publication also reported on and discriminatory hiring practices of companies such as the Southern Telephone Company, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Boulder Dam Company, the Los Angeles General Hospital, and the Los Angeles Rapid Transit Company.

The Norfolk Journal and Guide

  • Published: 1910
  • Founding Publisher: P.B. Young
  • City: Norfolk, VA
  • Mission: Less militant than newspapers in northern cities, the publication focused on traditional, objective reporting of issues impacting Black American communities in Virginia.

When The Norfolk Journal and Guide was established in 1910, it was a four-page weekly news publication. Its circulation was estimated at 500. However, by the 1930s, a national edition and several local editions of the newspaper were published throughout Virginia, Washington D.C., and Baltimore. By the 1940s, The Guide was one of the best-selling Black American news publications in the United States with a circulation of more than 80,000.

One of the biggest differences between The Guide and other Black American newspapers was its philosophy of objective news reporting of events and issues facing Black Americans. In addition, while other Black American newspapers campaigned for the Great Migration, the editorial staff of The Guide argued that the South also offered opportunities for economic growth.

As a result, The Guide, like the Atlanta Daily World was able to acquire advertisements for White-owned businesses on a local and national level.

Although the paper's less militant stance enabled The Guide to garner large advertising accounts, the paper also campaigned for improvements throughout Norfolk that would benefit all of its residents, including crime reduction and improved water and sewage systems.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Femi. "The Power of the Press: Black American News Publications in the Jim Crow Era." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Femi. (2023, April 5). The Power of the Press: Black American News Publications in the Jim Crow Era. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "The Power of the Press: Black American News Publications in the Jim Crow Era." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).