Frederick Douglass’ pioneering black newspaper
By Walter Fox
In December of 1847, a remarkable newspaper made its appearance in Rochester, N.Y. It was called The North Star, and it was published by Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist orator and a former slave.
That a man raised in slavery and lacking formal education would have the temerity to start a newspaper was amazing in itself, but even more astonishing was the quality of his product.
From the very first issue, The North Star set a new standard for black journalism in America. Not only was the new weekly exceedingly well written, it also was able to look beyond the immediate concerns of the abolitionists and connect that struggle to the emancipation of women and other oppressed groups.
“While our paper shall be mainly Anti-Slavery,” Douglass declared in that first issue, “its columns shall be freely opened to the candid and decorous discussion of all measures and topics of a moral and humane character, which may serve to enlighten, improve and elevate mankind.”
To back up these sentiments, the paper’s nameplate proclaimed: “Right is of no sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
Published from a one-room office in downtown Rochester, the North Star by 1851 could boast a circulation of more than 4,000, with readers in Europe and the West Indies as well as in the United States. Even so, Douglass’ entry into journalism was anything but smooth. His white colleagues in the abolitionist movement opposed his plans to start a newspaper. Recalling their opposition many years later in his autobiography, Douglass offered an explanation:
“A wood-sawyer offering himself to the public as an editor. A slave, brought up in the very depths of ignorance, assuming to instruct the highly civilized people of the north in the principles of liberty, justice and humanity. The thing looked absurd.”
Even Douglass occasionally wondered if he could succeed in an undertaking where educated blacks had failed. During the paper’s first year, Douglass was forced to mortgage his home and return to the lecture circuit to offset production costs.
Yet, despite the pessimism of his colleagues and his own self doubt, he forged ahead with the project because he believed that a successful newspaper managed by blacks “would be a telling fact against the American doctrine of natural inferiority, and the inveterate prejudice which so universally prevails in this country against the colored race.”
By 1851, Douglas reported to friends that The North Star was self-sustaining and contributing to the support of his large family. “Hitherto the struggle of its life has been to live,” he added. “Now it more than lives.”
Hardly had The North Star gotten off the ground when Douglass did what every good journalist does sooner or later: He got into trouble. And like many editors before and after him, Douglass got into trouble for being politically incorrect.
In the 1840s, militant abolitionists believed that the U.S. Constitution was essentially a proslavery document. They also maintained that non-slaveholding states had a duty to dissolve the union with slaveholding states, and that one of the most effective ways to bring this about was for those who shared their views to abstain from voting.
In his autobiography, Douglass said he had accepted these positions out of respect for the superior knowledge of his colleagues. But in his new role as an editor, Douglass noted, he had a responsibility to his readers to rethink these issues. After reconsidering the whole subject, he concluded that there was no need to dissolve the Union, and that to abstain from voting, “was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery.”
“The constitution of the United States,” Douglass declared, “not only contained no guarantees in favor of slavery, but, on the contrary, it is, in its letter and spirit, an anti-slavery instrument.”
When these views were published in The North Star, Douglass found himself in conflict with many of his abolitionist colleagues. The result, he recalled, was painful:
“Those who could not see any honest reasons for changing their views, as I had done, could not easily see such reasons for my change, and the common punishment of apostates was mine.”
Douglass continued publishing The North Star until 1851, when it was merged with a weaker newspaper and renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper. In 1860, with the country sliding towards civil war, Douglass again ran into financial problems. He suspended his weekly and for the next three years continued to publish an abolitionist magazine called Douglass’ Monthly that he had begun in 1858 primarily for a British audience.
Douglass’ final foray into journalism came in 1870 when he took control of the New Era, a Washington weekly that was established to serve newly-freed blacks. Douglass invested $10,000 in the paper – renaming it the New National Era – but was unable to prevent its eventual collapse in 1874.
In all of his publications, Douglass campaigned fearlessly and eloquently to improve the status of black Americans. But his vision of social justice and equality was all-encompassing, and it enabled him to identify with any group – in this country or abroad – that was a target of oppression.
In his 20 years as a journalist, Douglass did more than simply prove that a black man could be a successful publisher. Judged by the quality of his thought, the eloquence of his writing and his overriding passion for social justice, he belongs in that select group of great American periodical editors and writers – with Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, William Lloyd Garrison, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and I.F. Stone.
If Douglass’ influence as an editor has often been overlooked by historians, his journalistic legacy continues to enrich the African-American press. Robert W. Bogle, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest continuously published black newspaper in America, said Douglass as a journalist “sensitized the conscience of the world to the plight of people of color and to their indignation.”
To the African-American press, Douglass is seen as a pioneer who “renewed hope and faith” in the black community,” Bogle said, adding that “his message was that black people were great in their own right and that given an opportunity to contribute, we as individuals could do as well as anyone.”
Bogle said he felt sure that if Douglass were alive today he would be speaking out strongly against the many ways that African-Americans are still segregated.
“He would be demanding as an African-American full and equal rights and the end of a dual society based on skin color,” Bogle said
As long as such a dual society exists, Bogle noted, there will be a need for black newspapers to provide readers with information they cannot get in other media.
“No one will do it for us,” he added.
Frederick Douglass would have agreed.
Walter Fox is a freelance writer and the author of Writing the News: A Guide for Print Journalists. This article originally appeared in Editor & Publisher of Dec. 6, 1997. © 1997 Walter J. Fox Jr.