Black Press Day: Documenting Chicago’s Journalism History

Black Press Day, March 16, commemorates the date in 1827 that the first issue of Freedom’s Journal hit the streets of New York City. The newspaper is considered to be the first African American-owned and -operated newspaper in the United States. Its editors declared, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.” And so began the history of the black press in America.

For nearly 200 years Black newspapers, publishers, editors, writers and photographers have worked toward implementing that initial declaration. Never pretending to be unbiased, papers such as the Chicago Defender, New York Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier and many others have chronicled the Black experience while seeking to inspire, inform and unite.

The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at Woodson Regional Library is fortunate to be the repository for a number of journalism collections. Most notably we hold the papers for the Abbott-Sengstacke Family. Robert Abbott started the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1905 at his landlady’s kitchen table. The paper initially became the voice of Black America, guiding African Americans to Chicago during the Great Migration and beyond. The paper bore witness to the atrocities of Jim Crow, the victories of the civil rights movement, the birth of jazz, blues and hip hop and the election of our first African American president.

Chicago has been home to a long list of well-respected African American journalists and proud members of the black press, including Ida B. Wells, Claude Barnett, Ethel Payne (the “First Lady of the Black Press”), Era Bell Thompson, John H. Johnson, Lester Holt, Merri Dee, Vernon Jarrett, Hermene Hartman, Natalie Moore and Dawn Turner Trice. Just to name a few!

To learn more, explore our journalism archival collections. For recent books, check out our African American Journalism booklist.

How will you celebrate the day? Let us know in the comments who your go-to Black journalist is or what Black news outlet you get your news from!