In his series of articles entitled Pioneers in Protest, Lerone Bennett, Senior Editor of Ebony Magazine, has written a capsule biography of John B. Russwurm, the distinguished West Indian who was a pioneer in Afro-American Journalism. The following information has been extracted from his article: Founders of the Negro Press, Ebony Magazine, July 1964.
“Day in and day out, the Negroes of New York City were mercilessly lampooned in the white press. In the dying days of 1826. the campaign of villification and slander reached nauseous heights. The integrity and courage of Negro men were openly questioned. Worse, editors invaded Negro homes and impugned the chastity of Negro women. This was a time of acute crisis for all Negro Americans and the New York leaders were agonizingly conscious of the forces arrayed against them…” More ominous was the creeping power of the American Colonization Society which wanted to send free Negroes “back” to Africa.
John B. Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish, two of the youngest and most promising of the New York leaders, were assigned the task of inventing a journal that could speak forcibly to both the enemy and joint friend without and the “brethren” within the veil.
Samuel E. Cornish, who is virtually unknown today, was born about 1795 in Delaware and raised in the relatively free environments of Philadelphia and New York. He organized the first Negro Presbyterian Church in New York City. Russwurm, who is generally credited with being the first Negro graduate of an American college, was a Jamaican, the son of an Englishman and an African woman. His father neglected to inform his white wife of the sins of his youth; but after his death, the widow learned of his son’s existence and financed his education at Bowdoin College where he was graduated in 1826.
Russwurm and Cornish made an excellent team, despite the differences in their backgrounds. In the prospectus for the proposed paper they idealistically stated:
“We shall ever regard the constitution of the United States as our polar star. Pledged to no party, wc shall endeavour to urge our brethren to use their rights to the elective franchise as free citizens. It shall never be our objective to court controversy though we must at all times consider ourselves as champions in defence of oppressed humanity. Daily slandered, we think that there ought to be some channel of communication between us and the public, through which a single voice may be heard in defence of five hundred thousand free people of colour”.
On Friday. March 16. 1827. the first issue of Freedom’s Journal, the first Negro newspaper in the Western World, appeared on the streets of New York City. In their ambitious first editorial, Russwurm and Cornish struck a high note of positiveness that still has something to say to the Afro-Americans in their present plight. It read, in part:
“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoke for us. Too long has the republic been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some, mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise toward us benevolent feelings, still (with sorrow we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends to discredit any person of colour; and pronounce anathema and denounce our whole body for the misconduct of this guilty one. Our vices and our degradation are ever arrayed against us, but our virtues are passed unnoticed…”
‘It is our earnest wish,’ the first editorial of the first Negro newspaper said, ‘to make our Journal a medium of intercourse between our brethren in different states of this great confederacy.’
The timeliness of this editorial, written over a hundred years ago, and the dynamics of its intellectual content, is far ahead of most editorials that appear in present-day Afro-American newspapers.
During the later years of his life, John B. Russwurm moved to a position that today would be called black nationalism. After receiving his Master’s degree from Bowdoin College in 1829, Russwurm went to Liberia in West Africa, where he established another newspaper, The Liberia Herald, and served as superintendent of schools. After further distinguishing himself as the governor of the Maryland Colony of Cape Palmas, this pioneer editor and freedom fighter died in Liberia in 1851.
The same year John B Russwurm died, another West Indian, Edward W. Blyden went to Africa and established himself in Liberia. He was destined to become the greatest black intellectual of the 19th century. He concerned himself with the plight of African people the world over and eventually built a bridge of understanding between the people of African origin in the West Indies, the United States and in Africa. More than anyone else in the 19th and during the early part of the 20th century, Edward W. Blyden called upon the black man to reclaim himself and his ancient African glory. The concept now being called Negritude started with Blyden.
Blyden was born in the then Danish West Indian island of St. Thomas in 1832, but reacted against treatment of his people in the New World by emigrating to Liberia in 1851. He was convinced that the only way to bring respect and dignity to the people of African descent was by building progressive new “empires” in Africa whose civilization, while remaining basically African, would incorporate useful elements of Western culture.
It was the great Edward W. Blyden, who, with the immortal Frederick Douglass, placed before the bar of public opinion in England and other countries in Europe, the case of the black man in America.
As far back as 1881, the renowned scholar and benefactor of West Africa, Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden, speaking on the occasion of his inauguration as President of Liberia College, sounded the note for the organized teaching of the culture and civilization of Africa and decried the fact that the world’s image of Africa was not in keeping with Africa’s true status in world history. I quote from his address on this occasion:
The people generally are not yet prepared to understand their own interests in the great work to be done for themselves and their children. We shall be obliged to work for some time to come not only without the popular sympathy we ought to have but with utterly inadequate resources.
In all English-speaking countries, the mind of the intelligent Negro child revolts against the descriptions of the Negro given in elementary books, geographies, travels, histories.
Having embraced or at least assented to these falsehoods about himself, he concludes that his only hope of rising in the scale of respectable manhood is to strive for what is most unlike himself and most alien to his peculiar tastes. And whatever his literary attainments or acquired ability, he fancies that he must grind at the mill which is provided for him putting in material furnished to his hands, bringing no contribution from his own field; and of course, nothing comes out but what is put in.
Blyden made several trips to the United States and to his former home in the West Indies. With the Gold Coast nationalist, J. E. Casely Hayford, Blyden developed the idea of a federation of West African states. He died in 1912.
Of all the West Indians who influenced the Afro- American freedom struggle, the most colorful and the most controversial was Marcus Aurelius Garvey. Among the numerous black Manasschs who presented themselves and their grandiose programmes to the people of Harlem, Marcus Garvey was singularly unique. He was born in Jamaica in 1887, the grandson of an African slave—a fact that was his proudest boast. He had grown up under a three-way colour system—white, mulatto and black. Garvey’s reaction to colour prejudice and his search for a way to rise above it and lead his people back to Africa, spiritually, if not physically, was the all-consuming passion of his existence.
Marcus Garvey’s glorious, romantic and riotous movement exhorted the black race and fixed their eyes on the bright star of a future in which they would reclaim and rebuild their African homeland and heritage. Garvey came to the United States as a disciple of Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute. Unfortunately, Booker T. Washington died before Marcus Garvey reached this country. Garvey had planned to raise funds and return to Jamaica to establish an institution similar to Tuskegee. In 1914, he had organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica. After the failure of this organization, he looked to the United States where he found a loyal group of followers willing to listen to his message.
Garvey succeeded in building a mass movement among American Negroes while other leaders were attempting it and doubting that it could be done. He advocated the return of Africa to the Africans and people of African descent. He organised, very rashly and incompetently, the Black Star Line, a steamship company for transporting people of African descent from the United States to Africa. Garvey and his movement had a short and spectacular life span in the United States. His movement took really effective form in about 1921, and by 1926, he was in a Federal prison, charged with misusing the mails. From prison, he was deported home to Jamaica. This is, briefly, the essence of the Garvey saga.
The self-proclaimed Provisional President of Africa never set foot on African soil. He spoke no African language. But Garvey managed to convey to members of the black race everywhere (and to the rest of the world), his passionate belief that Africa was the home of a civilization which had once been great and would be great again. When one takes into consideration the slenderness of Garvey’s resources and the vast material forces, social conceptions and imperial interests which automatically sought to destroy him, his achievement remains one of the great propaganda miracles of this century.
The deportation of Marcus Garvey and the decline of his movement marked the end of an era—an era when West Indians and Afro-Americans worked together and saw their plight as one and the same. In spite of the contributions that West Indians continued to make to the Afro-American freedom struggle, the relations between these two basically African people deteriorated.
There are indications that the present freedom struggle in Africa, the Caribbean area and in the United States will become the basis for a new era of understanding and cooperation.