The most exciting history of journalism to me is the history of the Black Press. Soldiers without swords is what they are best described as by journalists and historians alike.
Black publications began to circulate as early as 1826 and while some are no longer around several digital publications serve the same purpose and uphold the same values.
I will never forget watching the documentary, Soldiers Without Swords, by Stanley Nelson Jr., as a sophomore at Bennett College. I was amazed, mesmerized and learned more about black journalists than I ever new before the film started. The opening scene was of two Black journalists, Vernon Jarrett and Phyl Garland, who wrote and reported for the invisible communities of the South, Midwest, North and West Coast.
Jarrett and Garland open up the film with words that resonate with me to this day that drive me to uncover stories.
Jarrett starts off with saying, “We didn’t exist in the other papers. We were neither born, we didn’t get married, we didn’t die, we didn’t fight in any wars, we never participated in anything of a scientific achievement. We were truly invisible unless we committed a crime. And in the Black Press, the negro press, we did get married. They showed us our babies when born. They showed us graduating. They showed our PhDs.”
Garland went on to say, “The black press was never intended to be objective because it didn’t see the white press being objective. It often took a position. It had an attitude. This was a press of advocacy. There was news, but the news had an admitted and a deliberate slant,” and that is when my eyes opened even wider.
At the end of the opening the narrator, Joe Mornton says, “For over 150 years, African American newspapers were among the strongest institutions in Black America. They helped to create and stabilize communities. They spoke forcefully to the political and economic interests of their readers while employing thousands. Black newspapers provided a forum for debate among African Americans and gave voice to a people who were voiceless. With a pen as their weapon, they were Soldiers Without Swords.”
The Black Press gave a voice to people who were overlooked by people outside of the homes they cleaned, trees they hung from and segregated facilities in which they were not allowed. Writers like Ida B. Wells, Robert Abbott, Robert Vann and Frank Bolden made blacks visible through their storytelling.
The Black Press covered the World War II, poverty in American ghettos, the great migration, race riots in the south and employed members of the community. At a time when people of color could not report and many were illiterate the Black Press became a staple for information for blacks nationally.
Abbott, founder and publisher of the Defender made it a point to publish the hate crimes of the south in his Chicago paper.
One hundred years ago on January 9th, 1915, Abbott published this about piece on lynchings.
“Fifty-four lynchings occurred in the United States during the year 1914, six more than during the preceding year. Only 49 of the 54 being colored, showing conclusively that a grievous error was made somewhere. Think of it. Five white men lynched! It seems that we can nothing exclusive. Lynching was a form of punishment, especially prepared for us. At least that is what we have been led to believe. Perhaps the fun wasn’t coming fast and furious enough, so they threw in a few of their own number for good measure.”
Abbot’s sarcastic truths, like the one above, caught the attention of thousands of readers who had his paper delivered to their front door and by people who received the newspaper by way of paperboys who tossed the Defender from trains alongside railroad tracks in the south where his paper was not allowed.
Thirty years later Langston Hughes, best known for his poetry by most, was also a journalist and often the two collided. In Hughes’ poem, Why No Lynching Probes, published in his column at the Defender he wrote about the ugly and harsh reality of young men who hung from bridges in Mississippi and the fear blacks had of voting. Although he was based in New York the power of writing and informing blacks across America was critical and his voice was heard and Americans now had visual of what blacks in the south saw on a daily basis.
Pieces like, Eyes on the Prize, published by PBS on the murder and trail of Emmett Till told the story of not only the burning south but documented how the Black Press reported on social justice issues in the midst of segregation within the media.
In the midst of trails and tribulations in the black community publications like The Crisis published articles and essays that challenged blacks cross-culturally like the one W.E.B. DuBois wrote about in 1933. He wrote about the controversial and radical idea of the then negro discovering and classifying their blackness.
In the essay, On Being Ashamed of Oneself: An Essay on Race and Pride, DuBois broke down the internalized oppression that people of color struggled with. His essays were thought provoking and challenged people of color to be critical of not only the America they lived in but also themselves. He was the cultural critic of the time.
As scary of a reality people lived in they needed that kind of storytelling. That kind of reporting is what woke them up and helped some muster up the courage to leave the south and migrate to northern and western states. It was that kind of storytelling that bred more writers, reporters, photographers, publishers and publications for and by black people.
There were cartoonists, war correspondents, photographers and writers who laid out the foundation for black journalists. While the Black Press did not exist to be objective, it told the stories of the times that were not being told truthfully or being published elsewhere.
The Black Press often goes unspoken and unheard of as black journalists push for diversity in newsrooms and within the media industry. The history of articles written 100 years ago is being followed up 100 years later in stories by reporters like Isabel Wilkerson, Marc Lamont Hill, Goldie Taylor and young journalist who advocate for black lives.
When I think about the lynchings in the south and how they were reported on and today’s coverage of brutality in the Black community not much has changed in mainstream media. Nowadays some black journalists are told to pick a side as it relates to journalism and advocacy and honestly I believe that it is impossible within the national moment we live and when you know your history. It is imperative for Black journalists to take just stances for those who are underrepresented. I am forever grateful for writers like Melissa Harris-Perry, Marc Lamont Hill, Soledad O’Brien and countless others who shed light on injustice and go to bat for communities of people who have been silenced.
Ida B. Wells had more courage and integrity than half of the reporters today with less access. It is because of those who came before me that I have the courage to uncover stories that progress my community and take the calling of journalism seriously.