By Ronald W. Weathersby
Information and communication is power. Knowing this, slave traders took extraordinary measures to separate individual captives who were able to communicate with one another least they may plot to escape or worse, rebel. Once in America, slaves were isolated further. Families were separated and teaching slaves to read was a crime punishable by death by the mob or the court in many jurisdictions.
During this time most white Americans were misled regarding the inhumane life of enslaved Africans. In fact the continued isolation of enslaved Africans from one another and the public served the interest of the slave owners and American institutions which benefited from the institution.
In the years prior to the Civil War African-American newspapers were born. The journals spread the news about the cruelty of slavery and touted the beliefs of the growing abolitionist movement. The Freedom’s Journal and the North Star were early examples of Black newspapers that highlighted the fight for freedom and attempted to knock down the myths of the untamed, savage African as well as the happy slave.
Black owned newspapers were not always successful. Too many were lost due to lack of readership and dwindling revenues. However, many survived and the list of papers grew and soon every large city with a significant Black population had an African American newspaper including the Amsterdam (N.Y.) News, the Chicago Defender, Detroit Tribune, the Jackson (MS) Advocate, the Pittsburgh Courier and yes, the Tennessee Tribune. These papers investigated stories the mainstream papers overlooked. Historically they put a bright light on the inhumanity of Jim Crow and the savagery of lynching. While many daily newspapers propagated the negative myths and stereotypes of African Americans, Black newspapers highlighted Black men and women of consequence and celebrated the positive aspects of our families and our communities.
While African American newspapers report the news, their purpose does not stop there. Black newspapers give African Americans local and national news through the lens and experiences of Black journalist, editors and publishers. This is so critical today since according to the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism, the largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers including Nashville’s Tennessean and two-thirds of the country’s dailies. “The consolidation in the industry places decisions about the future of the individual papers, as well as the communities where they are located, into hands of owners with no direct stake in the outcome.” Today Black newspapers uniquely stand as a monument to locally owned newsgathering operations. They are newspapers that tell a story from the point of view of people with shared experiences.
Today’s African American newspapers are not the weekly crime blotter. They do not automatically equate a crime to Black institutions located a mile away but never white one located in the same community. (No, every crime in North Nashville isn’t near Tennessee State but it seems no crime in the West End is ever near Vanderbilt.) African American newspapers do not relish in reporting on the shortcomings of Black elected officials. Black newspapers do not automatically question the views of an oppressed community. Black newspapers stand up to the powerful interests corporate media shy away from or in too many instances are complicit with. African American newspapers never played the “both sides” political equivalency games corporate papers are so engaged in during the present political climate.
Black newspapers are local entities. Our doors are open to our readers. Our pages are available to our readers. Our Society pages spotlight a diverse community seldom recognized by corporate news and not a community mired in lawlessness and poverty. If we aren’t covering the news that’s relevant, you can visit us or call us at our local office where all decisions are made and let us know. You don’t need to fill out an anonymous form online or find a corporate address in McLean, Virginia.
For nearly 175 years African American newspapers have told the story of Black people to the world. We have done so with little ceremony, few accolades and in the face of many hardships both economic and physical. Our mission continues to redefine itself as history unfolds but one thing is certain, without Black subscribers and Black advertisers the Black press’ survival is in danger. If this clarion of truth to power is ever silenced our unique voices may never be heard again.