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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Community

Title of This Journal, Colored American, 4 March 1837
Colored American, first issue, 1837
The Black Press
- Colored American, selections from one year, 1837-1838 (PDF)

Of the forty-plus African American newspapers published before the Civil War, we will focus on one newspaper for one year as a microcosm of the antebellum black voice in print. Published in New York City, the Colored American was adapted from the earlier Weekly Advocate by Charles Ray and Samuel Cornish, both black clergymen and abolition activists. From the first issue in March 1837 to the first-anniversary issue in 1838, we read a selection of articles and editorials. The wide-ranging topics reflect the unified goals of abolition and civil rights as well as the disagreements among free African Americans over political agendas, modes of self-improvement, co-activism with white people, farming as an option for freed slaves, emigration to Africa and the Caribbean, ways to help slaves in the south and fugitive arrivals in the north, proper education and decorum of young people, and even the appropriate name for black Americans (see "Title of This Journal" above).

While it may seem obvious to include the black press in the theme COMMUNITY, it is important to analyze what black newspapers contributed to the sense of community among free blacks in the north, and beyond. Because many northern blacks were poor and/or illiterate and often needed to keep a low profile, black newspapers suffered from low subscriptions and readership, depending on the fledgling black middle class (note Cornish's pleas for financial support of his newspaper). Many, including the Colored American, were short-lived. Yet their impact was significant if only by their very existence, and scholars are still studying the long-range influence of the antebellum black press (note the last article in this collection, "Our Second Year"). These articles can serve as a mini-course on the making of African American identity among free blacks in the mid 1800s. (15 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did the Colored American strive to promote a "unity of feeling and effort" among free blacks?
  2. What model of social and political identity was offered to black readers of the Colored American?
  3. What range of tone and attitude do the editors take in their opinion pieces?
  4. When do they praise and chastise their readership?
  5. How do they address those who disagree with them?
  6. What topics and opinions in these selections did you find surprising or unexpected? Why?
  7. To what extent do the editors address white people, directly or indirectly? What is their message?
  8. How do you think white people responded to the Colored American and other black newspapers?
  9. Compare the editorials in the first issue ("Why We Should Have a Pape") with those at the beginning of its second year ("Our Second Year" and "The Importance of Our Paper").
  10. Over the year, when are the editors encouraged? discouraged?
  11. How do they try to influence their readers' opinions and behavior?
  12. How might the Colored American have differed if it had been founded in the 1850s after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850?
  13. Compare the Colored American with postbellum African American periodicals (see The Making of African American Identity, Vol. II (e.g., Cleveland Journal) and Vol. III (e.g., Opportunity and Chicago Defender).

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslaved and free African Americans construct communal identities in antebellum America?
  •  What obstacles did they confront from white people? from other African Americans?
  •  How did they respond to these obstacles?
  •  How did African Americans exercise autonomy and influence through community?

Colored American: 15 pages
Supplemental Sites
The Black Press in Antebellum America, overview in Slavery in America (WNET & New York Life Insurance Co.)

The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords (PBS)

Black Newspapers, digital images in Black Abolitionist Archive, University of Detroit, Mercy, including Freedom's Journal, first black newspaper, 1827-1829, digital images of all issues, from the Wisconsin Historical Society

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

Image: "Title of This Journal," Colored American, 4 March 1837, digital image (detail) from Black Abolitionist Archive, University of Detroit, Mercy. Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. The Enslaved Family   2. Plantation Community   3. Religion   4. Petitions
  5. Mutual Benefit   6. The Black Press   7. Fugitives   8. Canada

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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