Early African American and Anti-Slavery Newspapers: Sources for African American Genealogy Research

by Marjory Allen Perez | Jul 2, 2009

Marjory Allen Perez

Genealogists are very familiar with the importance of newspapers in their search of family history. They have often been described as the "diaries" of a community, providing notices of deaths, births and marriages; murders and crime; political news, local events, etc. In general newspapers usually serve a geographical community, but also can target a group with a specific ethnic, social or political interest. Early African American and Anti-Slavery newspapers are examples of the latter type of publication and both are valuable resources for African American genealogy research, providing both biographical information and a glimpse into nineteenth century African American life.

The first newspaper published in the United States to be owned and operated by African Americans was the Freedom's Journal, which made its debut on March 15, 1827. Published in New York City by Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm, the Journal covered a wide range of international, national, regional and local news. Although published in New York City the newspaper served a much larger geographic area during the two years it was in existence. The Colored American (January 1837 - December 25, 1841) was also published from New York City, with Samuel Cornish as editor, and its reach also extended far beyond the city. Other early African American newspapers include the Provincial Freeman, published from 1854 to 1857 in Chatham, Ontario, Canada; The North Star and Frederick Douglass Paper, published in Rochester, New York between 1847 and 1855; and The National Era, published in Washington, D.C. between 1847 and 1860. All of these newspapers advocated for the abolition of slavery and for the civil rights of all African Americans.

Benjamin Lundy's Genius of Universal Emancipation was one of the first anti-slavery newspapers published in the United States. Probably the most well-known of this genre is The Liberator, published by William Lloyd Garrison in Boston between 1831 and 1865. Other anti-slavery newspapers of note include the Friend of Man, published weekly for the New York State Anti-Slavery Society from 1836 through 1842; The Emancipator (also called The Emancipator and Journal of Public Morals); and National Anti-Slavery Standard. These publications reported on anti-slavery activity throughout the country.

Recognizing the importance of these newspapers there has been a concerted effort to make many of them available online. Accessible Archives has developed a database that at present includes complete runs of Freedom's Journal, Provincial Freeman, The Colored American, The North Star, The Christian Recorder, The National Era, and The Liberator. Accessible Archives is available by individual subscription and through many university and local libraries. The Friend of Man has been digitized by Cornell University and can be easily searched online. The Emancipator (and all its various titles) is included in the 19th Century U.S. Newspaper database within the Gale Group, available online through many university and public libraries. Access is also available to members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. All 103 issues of Freedom's Journal can be viewed at Wisconsin Historical Society's website. "African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography", edited by James P. Danky, Newspaper and Periodical Librarian at the Wisconsin Historical Society, provides the researcher with a comprehensive guide to about 6500 publications and where copies (originals or microfilm) of the publication can be found.

Using some of the above sources was invaluable to telling a more complete story about one African American man who lived in upstate New York during the nineteenth century. Perry B. Lee was born into slavery about 1809 in Washington, D.C.; moved to Palmyra, New York in the 1830s; worked as a barber; died in Palmyra in 1891. A search of early African American and Anti-Slavery newspapers revealed that Mr. Lee had been actively involved in the quest for civil rights for African Americans in New York State - adding a new dimension to the story of his life.

  • The Colored American, 2 September 1837 (Accessible Archives): A letter to the editor dated August 19, 1837 from Otis Clapp and Philip A. Bell. "Enclosed thou wilt receive ten dollars, for which thou wilt please direct six copies of the 'Colored American' to Perry Lee, Palmyra, Wayne Co., New York, a young (colored) man of our village of much promise and respectability, and who takes great interest in the success of thy paper..."
  • The Colored American, 17 February 1838 (Accessible Archives) - In list of letters received by publication - P. B. Lee, Palmyra, N.Y.
  • The Friend of Man, 24 January 1838 (Cornell University) - Report of Anti-Slavery Convention held in Rochester on January 13th - Perry Lee of Palmyra was included in list of those attending.
  • The Colored American, 27 July 1839 (Accessible Archives) - Editor in calling for a New York State Colored Men Convention to be held in September 1840. "...We call on our brethren to assist us in this great work... We call on ... Lee of Palmyra..."
  • The Colored American, 11 September 1841 (Accessible Archives) - P. B. Lee and S.R. Ward named to Wayne County committee at meeting of New York State Colored Men's Convention held in Troy, New York, August 1841.
  • The Frederick Douglass Paper, 2 December 1853 (Accessible Archives) - Perry B. Lee listed as member of committee for district convention of the colored people in the counties of Ontario, Yates, Seneca, Cayuga and Wayne to be held in Geneva, New York on December 1, 1853.

What might a search of early African American and anti-slavery newspapers reveal about your ancestors? Take a look - you might be surprised.

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