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date: 26 March 2023

Early African American Print Culturefree

Early African American Print Culturefree

  • Eric GardnerEric GardnerSaginaw Valley State University


Not until the end of the 20th century did scholars begin to look at early African American print culture in the depth it deserves. A story painfully intertwined with the transatlantic slave system and racism, early black print engagement combined, from its beginnings, responses to white aggression and a powerful set of individual and communal desires to read about, record, and, via print, share truths of black life in the United States. Some of the first creators of black print in the United States, from the authors of the earliest slave narratives to poet Phillis Wheatley, had to think through questions of individual and communal identity vis-à-vis emerging American socio-political structures and find ways to ensure control over their own voices in a white-dominated culture that tried to exclude, use, or abuse those voices.

But early black print culture is not simply the story of a single genre like the slave narrative or of exceptional individuals like Wheatley. Rather, it is also the story of organizational print tied to churches, conventions, and activist groups. It is as well the story of a diverse range of modes, from the rich pamphleteering tradition (perhaps most excitingly expressed by David Walker) to early black periodicals like those edited by Samuel Cornish and Philip Bell. Especially after 1830, it also became the story of a range of black women (from Maria Stewart and Jarena Lee to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper), of African Americans across the North (and occasionally in the midst of the slave South), and of an increasing number of formats, genres, and approaches. And it became a story of how black activists might interact (in print and beyond) with white antislavery activists, recognizing both shared and different goals and philosophies as they attempted to fight not only for emancipation but for broader civil rights.


  • North American Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 19th Century (1800-1900)
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing

It is October 1865, and Philip Alexander Bell is reading copy in his office in Room #9 of the three-story brick Phoenix Building on the southwest corner of Sansome and Jackson, in San Francisco. There is too much material for the four pages of his weekly newspaper, the Elevator, founded that past April: texts on the first months of Reconstruction, the continuing shock following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the massive casualties of the Civil War, the flurry of activity surrounding the not-yet-ratified Thirteenth Amendment, hopes for black suffrage and civil rights, and diverse local stories, including plans for a statewide convention of California African Americans to think about their place in the state and the nation.

The Elevator was actually the second black newspaper in San Francisco that Bell (1808–1889) had edited: he’d helped found the Pacific Appeal with Peter Anderson in 1862 and had edited that paper for a year before tensions with Anderson grew too high. But he continued writing occasional pieces for the Appeal before eventually working with key black leaders in the city and state to found his own paper. The Elevator would survive well into the 1880s; writing in The Rising Son; Or, the Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (1873), author and activist William Wells Brown (1815–1884) would call Bell “one of the ablest of American journalists” and “the Napoleon of the colored press.”1 Scrambling to get and then keep his newspaper afloat, battling daily incidents of racism while struggling to make rent, and working to establish places for black people in the nation and in the American West, Bell would have greeted Brown’s phrasing with ambivalence: was he building an empire or was his reach exceeding his grasp on the way to his own Waterloo?

The circumstances of Bell’s work in late 1865, and the stories behind that work, highlight key features of early African American print culture, a subject only recently beginning to receive the attention it deserves. To introduce and survey this subject, this article uses Bell’s life and surroundings as both a touchstone and a lens. The history it offers is suggestive rather than definitive, in part because, in a trend that shows no sign of stopping, the study of early black print has undergone substantial changes over the past three decades brought on by exciting archival work and shifting methodologies. Still, it is possible to sketch out some broad contours of black print from its beginnings until 1865, and, in this, to identify a set of key themes—the importance of studying both individuals and groups, questions of identity and American-ness, the ways in which black print activists used books but were never bound to that format, the growing diversity of authors and modes, and the consistent attempts by African American print activists to assert and control their own voices and stories.

Coming to English, Coming to Print

Bell’s birth near the beginning of the 19th century (c. 1808) to free African American parents in New York City made him both temporally and geographically able to participate in a then-still-nascent black print culture. From an early age, Bell knew that his engagement with print was largely conditional on his legal freedom—a state he was consistently reminded was not shared by the vast majority of African Americans, and one where his American-ness was always threatened and prefaced by a racial signifier like “colored.” He found print key to his engagement with the broader American culture not only because of these difficulties but because of a persistent stutter that he would battle all of his life, a reminder that broad historical trends are always intertwined with individual circumstances.

Bell’s coming to language, to writing, and to print were very different processes than those experienced by many African Americans before him, and certainly different from those of almost all Africans sold into America. English was Bell’s first language, his parents’ place on the edges of a tiny urban black middle class allowed a home with books and periodicals, New York held a diverse mix of free and enslaved African Americans and a transnational population of black sailors who were stunningly mobile and interested in print, and Bell was able to attend New York’s African Free School, which had been founded in 1787 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Portrait of Phillis Wheatley, Engraved by Scipio Moorehead, Included as the Frontispiece of Her 1773 Poems on Various Subjects. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-12533.

This last institution demands some note simply, first, because it was an institution—one designed to aid select African Americans in gaining a set of literacies, including the alphabetic. It was white-run; its main teacher/principal after 1809, Charles C. Andrews, was a white man working under the guidance of the white-run New York Manumission Society, an often-conservative and often patronizingly racist antislavery group. Still, in addition to systematically educating black youth in modes and subjects that a growing number of young white men and select white women could access, institutions like the African Free School were key avenues to print culture participation because they held libraries, some of which allowed books to be checked out by students, thus bringing more print into more black homes. Arthur Donaldson, a white teacher for a black school in Philadelphia, published a handful of issues of a Juvenile Magazine, beginning in 1811, to expose his students and their supporters to a wider range of print—including antislavery arguments and material on and by early poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784).

Such schools also fostered African American networks. New York’s Free African School, for example, engaged supportively with the first African American newspaper—New York City’s Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827—and it employed the man who had been the paper’s first editor, Samuel Cornish (1795–1858), as an agent. Among the other students at the school, several later became active in print culture: Ira Aldridge (1807–1867; later an internationally noted actor), Alexander Crummell (1819–1898; minister and activist), Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882; minister and activist), Charles Reason (1818–1893; educator), Patrick Reason (1816–1898; activist and artist), and James McCune Smith (1813–1865; activist and physician). Some of these interpersonal networks extended across the Northeast: radical Boston pamphleteer David Walker (c. 1796–1830) was closely tied to Freedom’s Journal; the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Founding Bishop, Philadelphian Richard Allen (1760–1831), worked with many black New Yorkers; white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison found both moral and financial support from key black New Yorkers (in dialogue with black Philadelphians and black Bostonians) (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Late 19th-Century Photograph of a Painting of African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Richard Allen. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-bellcm-24994.

Such connections between individuals both enabled and were shaped by print. When a young Philip Bell read Freedom’s Journal, for example, or Garrison’s Liberator (begun in Boston in 1831), he could read work by or about Walker, Allen, Cornish, and a host of other African Americans, including Wheatley.

Such possibilities simply did not exist for the vast majority of Africans sold into America, or for their immediate descendants. Wheatley’s case is instructive. Stolen from her home (likely in West Africa) when she was a child, she was sold to Boston merchant John Wheatley and educated by his wife Susanna and the Wheatley children and was exposed to a wide range of British and American print via Boston’s metropolitan print trade. Rare even for enslaved people doing domestic work in a Northeast urban center, Wheatley’s education wasn’t even imaginable for most enslaved people, especially those, for example, in rural, agriculture-centered Southern locations. Further, progressive as the white Wheatleys’ efforts might seem, they were enabled by wealth and the socio-political circumstances of pre-Revolutionary Boston, and even the “supportive” Wheatleys owned other African Americans and did not emancipate Phillis Wheatley until she was 20.2

While Ira Berlin suggests that the earliest enslaved Africans in British America often came via a Creole world at a nexus of languages and cultures, most enslaved Africans came to American English as non-native speakers—and came after experiencing the trauma of the Middle Passage, in which slavers not only kidnapped individuals but often separated them by language in hopes of lessening chances for revolt.3 While select scholars have begun to attend to some of the rich scribal cultures of Africa during this period, many enslaved Africans sold into America grew up in cultures centered on the oral. Much of the language instruction of enslaved people in the US South was not only oral but was also focused on Englishes (and hybrids) tied to work and commerce. Some early accounts of slavery thus speak of being initially mystified by print in such pronounced and revelatory ways that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has argued that the “ur-trope of the Anglo-African tradition” is the “talking book”—a printed text that enslaved Africans saw “talking” to white people and knew they needed to engage, “signify” on, challenge, and revise.4

Still, some slave owners knew that some exposure to more diverse forms of oral English and especially written English—to reading and/or writing, often treated as separate subjects at the time—might allow enslaved people to do more and different work and thus add to owners’ profits, even work in print shops. Some slave owners and surrounding white community members were also influenced by various Euro-Christian faith traditions that had begun to tie religious practice to reading “the Word.” Some of these saw African American conversion to Christianity as a necessity, and thus some wanted African Americans—enslaved as well as the small but slowly growing number of legally free people—to be able to read at least the Bible. Dickson D. Bruce wisely recognizes that conversion was far from always liberatory: “not only religious principles, but also the means of understanding them” could be “in keeping with a vision that saw conversion as support for slavery” with a “focus . . . on obedience and duty.”5

In rare but important cases, specific types of white Protestant missionary sentiment led to the education of individuals (like Wheatley) and, occasionally, to the founding of schools specifically for African American youth, with 18th-century efforts in Philadelphia by Anthony Benezet of special note, as well as the New York African Free School Bell later attended. The colonies and then the young nation thus saw a growing, if still very small and restricted, group of literate enslaved and free Africans in America and African Americans.

Finally, small numbers of white people, often again tied to specific conceptions of faith, had begun to take antislavery positions. While early white antislavery often relied on or engaged in various forms of racism including paternalism, tokenism, silence about white privilege, and assumptions of white supremacy, they, too, suggested value in the education of select African Americans, and they sometimes aided select black voices in reaching the public sphere. Bruce, for example, notes that “slave testimony” was harnessed by some white Anglo-American antislavery efforts in service “of an ethic founded on sentimentality” and “an ideal of empathy and compassion as bases for moral action.”6

In a broad way, most of the earliest African American authors engaged with one or more of these circumstances when they moved into print, as seen in titles like the broadside poem “An Evening Thought. Salvation, by Christ, with Penitential Cries” (1761) by Jupiter Hammon (1711c. 1806), A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785) by John Marrant (1755–1791), and, of course, Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Wheatley again stands as a notable example: initially educated in part to ensure conversion and then piety, she was aided in publishing her book not only by her owners but also by Selena Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, who was connected both to the progressive theology of George Whitefield and to British antislavery efforts. And so the story of some of the earliest African American print is the story of exceptional genius—like Wheatley’s or that of minister Lemuel Haynes (1753–1833), who published poems and sermons, or polymath Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806), who published 28 editions of his popular Almanac beginning in 1792—working in pockets of exceptional circumstances amid early transatlantic modernity.

Communities of Action, Communities of Print

Figures like Wheatley, Marrant, and Hammon had to negotiate the broader politics of the American Revolution, including what seemed to be promising possibilities for black loyalists. They had to work, as well, amid the initial rumblings of colonizationist sentiment that would later turn into movements in which white and some black antislavery activists tried to “return” African Americans to the African continent. (Later writers would also have to deal with the complex response to the Haitian Revolution of 1791, which opened possibilities for black nation-states in the Americas and increased fears of slave revolt among many white slave owners.) Like Afro-British writers including James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (c. 1710c. 1773) and Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745–1797), whose slave narratives (the 1772 Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and the 1789 Interesting Narrative of the Life Olaudah Equiano, respectively) opened print possibilities, they had to think about how to identify themselves, as most Africans did not think of themselves as such but instead as members of specific ethnic, tribal, or religious groups. These writers—as well as figures like Lucy Terry Prince (c. 1725–1821), whose poem “Bars Fight” was composed in 1746, but not published until 1855; Briton Hammon (birth and death dates unknown), whose 1760 Narrative is sometimes seen as the earliest African American slave narrative) and, later, Venture Smith (c. 1729–1805, originally named Broteer), whose dictated 1798 Narrative emphasizes his American-ness)—had to fight for conceptions of black personhood both in their daily lives and in their work, often alongside growing communities of free or freed people of color.

There are also communal and community stories of early black print culture that need to be told. As much as Bell might have been inspired by, say, Phillis Wheatley, his entry into print happened within broader matrices. Beyond white-run institutions like the New York African Free School, or white antislavery groups like the New York Manumission Society, the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw an important rise in institutions and structures for African Americans that were created and run by African Americans. These included churches, benevolent societies, fraternal orders (especially black Masonic groups, with black Bostonian Prince Hall’s efforts being key), and other community groups. As Frances Smith Foster asserts, “the various lodges and societies, brotherhoods, and sisterhoods needed to create and to preserve consensus and ideals, to record and to report deeds and intentions, duties, rituals, routines, and declarations. African American print culture was an inevitable result.”7

Certainly some of the texts associated with such groups responded to white actions and white print—and specifically white attacks; one thinks immediately of Philadelphians Absalom Jones and Richard Allen’s 1794 Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity, which focused on African American community work amid the massive 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia and responded to the assaults by racist white critics like Matthew Carey. But even this pamphlet was as much about articulating facts for black readers and for the broader black community as it was about responding to white vitriol. Thus, Foster stresses that much early African American print “owed as much, if not more, to the desire to create a positive and purposeful self-identified African America as to any defensive gestures responding to racist attacks and libel”—and that many African Americans entered print culture “primarily to speak to and for themselves about matters they considered worthy of written words. They did this also in response to their own felt needs to record and to refine their own organizational activities and community developments.”8

Such organizations and organizational print created venues for diverse publications, with some emphasis on antislavery prose—ranging from speeches and sermons celebrating the US restriction of its participation in the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 by ministers like Jones (1746–1818) and Peter Williams, Jr. (c. 1780–1840) to texts like the 1810 A Dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister, a quiet yet striking refutation of pro-slavery ideology, by Daniel Coker (c. 1780c. 1835). Yet, as Foster notes, while African Americans working in print “were concerned about slavery and the slave trade . . . these were not their only, nor always their primary, issues. They also worked to communicate physical and metaphysical realities and to develop their moral, spiritual, intellectual, and artistic selves.”9 Thus, Jupiter Hammon’s 1787 Address to the Negroes in the State of New York, the 1792 and 1797 charges to black Masons by Prince Hall (1735–1807), and the 1813 Letters by a Man of Colour by Philadelphia James Forten (1766–1842) addressed a host of issues tied to black life in general, with—like Jones and Allen’s Narrative—heavy emphasis on creating identities as Americans at a moment when slaveholding power was consolidating in the South and when African American life in the North was becoming more restricted, even as more northern states were engaging in gradual emancipation. Notably, several of the texts cited above were published as pamphlets, a format at which early African American writers became especially adept because it was more plausible than finding a friendly white newspaper for shorter texts or finding and coming up with funds for a friendly white printer/publisher for longer texts.

Perhaps the most important event in early African American print, though, was the creation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Book Concern in 1817, only a year after the Church’s official founding. Allen became not only the Church’s first Bishop but also its first Book Steward. While more scholars have begun to appreciate the massive power of AME print post-1861, its early efforts remain undervalued.10 The year 1817 saw the publication of the Doctrine and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a text that covered theology, practice, and ritual. While Allen had first arranged for publication of a collection of hymns in 1801, 1818 saw the publication of the African Methodist Pocket Hymn Book. While both volumes had similarities to their white Methodist Episcopal counterparts, the Discipline was regularly revised and updated via the Church’s general conferences, and the Hymn Book, was revised substantially later in the 19th century. Both texts became very much AME-specific documents. What Allen and his fellows had done made a powerful statement: black people had given black churches a black-selected and black-managed structure for worship activities. While the growth of other black denominations—the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church as well as black Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches—did not impact African American print as immediately, Afro-Protestantism as both worldview and organized practice, as Foster argues, coalesced as a crucial piece of early black print culture.

Given these organizational developments, the message of editors Cornish and John B. Russwurm (1799–1851) in the first column of the March 16, 1827 inaugural issue of Freedom’s Journal was thus both radically new—in that it opened the very first African American newspaper—and richly tied to a long history of black engagement with print culture: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us . . . It shall ever be our daily duty to vindicate our brethren, when oppressed, and to lay the cause before the public . . .” Published weekly, the paper, like many other newspapers of the period, was a mix of material reprinted from other sources and original pieces; it included, for example, what may have been the first published African American short fiction, “Theresa, A Haytien Tale” (which was signed only “S”), as well as local news and commentary. Founded by a consortium of New York black activists (including both religious and secular people led by Rev. Peter Williams, Jr.), Freedom’s Journal had diverse connections beyond the city. Still, as rich as the paper’s potential was, it highlighted the difficulties of community action in and beyond print. Editors Cornish and Jamaican-born Russwurm, a proponent of colonization, clashed regularly, and Cornish resigned in September 1827. The paper moved more toward colonization politics, and, as a result, lost significant support. Soon after it folded in March of 1829, Russwurm firmed his position in the American Colonization Society and moved to Liberia. With support from the original founders, Cornish returned to edit a short-lived successor, The Rights of All, but only six monthly issues were published.

For all of the two papers’ difficulties, however, the black press had begun, and both its goals and one of its early leaders (Cornish) would become central forces in placing Philip Bell in his San Francisco office in 1865.

Opportunities and Appeals

A striking feature of much of this community-centered print was its combination of local and national—even international—sensibilities and reach. While the Bethel AME Church congregation in Philadelphia had grown out of decidedly local circumstances—dedicated in 1794 and legally separated from white Methodist groups—the call of Richard Allen to found a larger group in 1816 went out not only to African American Methodists in the Philadelphia area but also to congregations in Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. By 1830, the Church had reached into New York, Ohio, the District of Columbia, and even South Carolina—and AME print had, too. Similarly, while Freedom’s Journal was centered in New York, the paper would eventually reach at least eleven states, as well as Canada and Haiti, in part through the work of a network of agents like Boston’s David Walker. Such efforts built connections between black individuals and communities but also touched more supportive white people—and a nascent network of antislavery activism that included a growing amount of print, including Benjamin Lundy’s Genius of Universal Emancipation, and, after its founding in 1831, Garrison’s Liberator. Cornish would become one of the founding members of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833—though, marking the segmentation of the antislavery movement, disagreements with Garrison on questions of religion led him to move to Arthur and Lewis Tappan’s more conservative American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society by 1840. Both of these national organizations engaged actively with American print, sometimes foregrounding black voices, albeit with varying limits on those voices. Some texts tied to such organizations—most notably, the 1845 Narrative of activist Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)—would become centerpieces of 19th-century black print. Many early scholars thus marked the 1840s as the moment when black print culture began in earnest—and they created quick genealogies between the exceptional Wheatley and Equiano and authors of mid-century slave narratives like Douglass.

Again, though, such accounts are massively oversimplified and ignore much black individual and community work, especially in the late 1820s and 1830s. Perhaps the most explosive moment in early black culture actually came well before Douglass’s amazing narrative: in 1829, David Walker published Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America.11 The balance between a global and national consciousness—indeed, a local one, given that the title page went on to note that the Appeal had been written and published in Boston—certainly meshed neatly with early black print. The text’s basic format—a pamphlet—also spoke directly to earlier black print, as did its combination of evangelical language and Enlightenment logic.

But in a host of ways, Walker’s Appeal was like nothing African American—or, really, American—print culture had yet seen. In searing prose, Walker eviscerated not only slave owners but also the individuals and systems supporting slavery while touting the democracy and liberty supposedly embodied in the American Revolution. Walker’s balancing of audiences—the “colored citizens” of the title, but also the white victimizers—embodies a stunning and painful wit, even down to the hope and the irony in his title usage of “citizens.” As several scholars have noted, his typography—especially his usage of small pointing hand illustrations and multiple exclamation points—stretch the possibilities of the printed page.12 His calls for black activism, black nationalism, and possible violent revolt/revolution struck fear in the hearts of many slave owners.

More striking, Walker worked not only with early antislavery networks but also with some of the highly mobile African American sailors of the period to move the pamphlet up and down the Atlantic coast; by 1830, copies had spread as far as the Carolinas and Georgia. Several local and state entities in the South labeled the Appeal as seditious, threatened and sometimes arrested those who circulated or owned copies, and initiated legislative moves to limit black literacy and education; white Georgians even put a bounty on Walker’s head. While Walker died later in 1830—scholars now suggest from tuberculosis—his Appeal had a lasting impact on both black and abolitionist print; its radicalism offered a flashpoint that figures from Douglass to Garrison had to address.

If Walker’s Appeal demonstrates just how complex, revolutionary, and community-centered black print could be, The Hope of Liberty (1829), a collection of poetry by George Moses Horton (c. 1797c. 1883), published in the same year as the Appeal, reminds us of both the power of white exceptionalism and the narrower spaces such attitudes offered to a tiny handful of black writers. An autodidact enslaved in North Carolina, Horton made deliveries to the University of North Carolina for his owner and there composed love poems for purchase by students—garnering both fees and a growing reputation for his wit and skill. While Walker’s Appeal seems to have been largely self-funded, Horton’s collection was sponsored by white colonizationists in North Carolina, even as its suggested purpose was to raise enough money to purchase Horton and free him. While those efforts failed, Horton’s supporters ensured some space for him to learn to write—as, when the book was published, he could only read and composed his work mentally and orally. Horton’s book and larger poetic life, including especially his 1845 Poetical Works, were a constant negotiation, not only with his owner, but with his supporters—who were far from abolitionist and included Caroline Lee Hentz, who would later write pro-slavery novels, and North Carolina Governor John Owen. Horton’s work—often richly allusive—seems a fascinating descendant of Wheatley’s, something white Garrisonian printer Isaac Knapp undoubtedly saw when he republished Horton’s early poetry alongside Wheatley’s in 1837. As rare and wonderful as some of Horton’s poetry is, though, it is a marker of the world Walker was fighting to overturn.

The ideological and circumstantial spectrums running between and beyond Walker and Horton’s texts suggest that a young African American man who wanted to dedicate his life to print, as Philip Bell did, had growing, if still radically circumscribed and often threatened, options. By 1831, Bell had seen a growing number of his African Free School colleagues enter the world as activists—several via the ministry—and had seen, as well, the possibilities and limitations of a range of forms of black print, from the early New York newspapers to a range of black pamphlets. He had a growing understanding of African American enslavement throughout the Atlantic world and of the restricted “freedom” of African Americans in the US North. He was actively exploring options for bringing more print to more African Americans and for using print as, per his later newspaper title, an “elevator,” helping African Americans to rise. Alongside James McCune Smith, he was involved, for example, with the Philomathean Society, a group of free African American middle-class men who, after the Society’s founding in 1829, as an outgrowth of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, gathered an extensive library for members, sponsored lectures, hosted debates, and engaged in civil rights activism. Bell was also learning to negotiate with different factions and individuals—working with figures ranging from Garrison, whose Liberator he worked for, to the Tappan brothers, who would offer support when Bell helped found the interracial Phoenix Society in 1833. He was recognizing, as well, the need for both individual and collective action to move black print culture—and African American rights generally—forward.

Conventions and “Conventions”

When Bell attended a New York City African American anti-colonization meeting in January 1831, and was later named to the New York Provisional Committee by the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, held in Philadelphia in June of that year, he must have seen rich potential. “First Annual Convention” is a misnomer: in September 1830, less than two months after Walker’s death, at the behest of a group of black Philadelphians led by the venerable Bishop Allen, African American delegates from across the United States had come together for a convention of “Coloured Citizens” to explore a range of issues, including possible purchase of land in Canada for emigration, and this meeting is generally dated as the first of the “Colored Conventions.” The “annual” suggestion of the 1831 meeting title lasted only until 1835. That said, African American conventions—including national, regional, and state gatherings—quickly became a force within and beyond African America and critical sites tied to early black print, as demonstrated in the digital Colored Conventions Project. They attracted leaders from diverse spheres—religious and secular; freeborn, freed, and self-emancipated; old and young. The 1832 National Convention, which Bell attended as a New York delegate, drew, among others, John B. Vashon (1792–1854), an early Pittsburgh activist and father of poet/activist George B. Vashon (1824–1878); James W. C. Pennington (1809–1870), a minister who would pen his own slave narrative; Abraham Shadd (1801–1882), an activist whose daughter Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893) would become one of the earliest black women periodical editors; Nathan Johnson (1797–1880), longtime New Bedford activist and key early friend to Frederick Douglass; and Hosea Easton (1798–1837), New England minister and activist.

While conventioneers believed and participated in print culture, conventions themselves also produced print. From the 1830 Philadelphia Convention onward, many gatherings produced and published calls to meet, minutes, reports, speeches, and calls for future action. They also sent reports and accounts of proceedings to both white and black newspapers. Occasionally, as with the California Colored Conventions of 1855, 1856, and 1857, such gatherings even endorsed or moved to support black periodicals. These events offered the podium to some of the century’s greatest minds, and their speeches often offered not only activist philosophy, but also concrete information on individual black communities. They fostered dialogue between a wide range of African Americans in and through both the oral and performative spaces of the event and the print spaces of their publications. Arguably, by the middle of the 19th-century, conventions were functioning as a kind of meta-organization, a meeting place for diverse individuals and groups within African America to think through goals, possibilities, limitations, joys, and concerns; print was central to their composition and their action.

Perhaps the clearest measure of the power of print to conventioneers—and of the possibilities and limitations of black organizational print—can be seen in a text not published and very specifically not endorsed by a convention because it was not “conventional” enough: the speech Henry Highland Garnet made at the 1843 National Convention of Colored Citizens held at Buffalo, New York. The convention gathered delegates including, among other luminaries, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, editor/activist Charles Ray (1807–1886), and abolitionist lecturer Charles Remond (1810–1873); the body named Philip Bell to a committee to explore the creation of a national black press. Garnet’s speech was titled “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” and, steeped in the language of millennialist evangelism, it advocated for active resistance by enslaved African Americans. It reached consciously back to sentiments in Walker’s Appeal and, notably, when Garnet finally published the speech (Figure 3), in 1848, he prefaced it with a biography of Walker and a reprinting of the full Appeal.

Figure 3. Frontispiece and Title Page of Henry Highland Garnet’s 1848 Edition of David Walker’s Appeal and Garnet’s “Address.” Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-105530.

That publication also noted prominently that the “Address” had been “rejected by the National Convention of 1843.” The vote to reject was close, and the debate over Garnet’s words and ideas, intense, with Douglass key among his opposition. The proceedings did actually carry a brief summary of the speech, but some of what was at stake was not only what the convention would endorse but what it would publish as its own.

The 1833 Rock of Wisdom: An Explanation of the Sacred Scriptures by Noah Calwell Cannon (c. 1796–1850) offers a similar example. While it was partially addressed to the AME Church—offering both theology and hymns—and could have been published by the Book Concern, its arguments troubled many in the church. Cannon arranged for what seems to have been essentially self-publication, complete with prefatory letters testifying to his identity and ministry, only to have the book twice censured by the AME’s New York Conference. (As late as 1891, AME Bishop Daniel Payne [1811–1893] called Cannon “a man of very eccentric habits and irregular mode of thinking, but as active and laborious as he was eccentric.”)13 Garnet’s address and Cannon’s Rock thus mark some of the boundaries of organizational print even as, on the other hand, their non-organization publication highlights some of the broader possibilities for African Americans entering American print after 1830.

These were lines Bell himself was exploring. A consistent conventioneer, he raised his profile through the 1830s, especially when, after his time with the Liberator, in 1837, he worked with Charles Ray and Freedom’s Journal editor Samuel Cornish on a New York City newspaper initially called the Weekly Advocate and then retitled the Colored American. By the time Bell left the paper in 1839—although beset by financial difficulties, it would continue until the end of 1841—it was a crucial vehicle for African America. As scholars like Benjamin Fagan have demonstrated, it was enmeshed in struggles to articulate praxis surrounding the two title key words—“Colored” and “American”—and it mixed the local with the national in its coverage.14 Bell recognized early that a black editor’s role as a gatekeeper could be crucial to determining which black voices and texts appeared—and how and where—questions that became more pronounced as more African Americans engaged with print.

Black Women and Early Print Culture

That widening spectrum of print possibilities, albeit still under the oppressive hand of slaveholding power and racism, highlights a gap that looms even larger than the ideological differences that sent Garnet and Cannon on different publication paths: the places of and opportunities for black women in black print culture. Phillis Wheatley’s gender made her a rare exception (yet again) in an early American culture that often limited women’s engagement with the public sphere. Much early black print emphasized the construction of black masculinities within similarly gendered senses of the public sphere. Still, a few black women became deeply involved in early print culture, and the ways in which they expanded their participation demand discussion.

The print work of Maria W. Stewart (1803–1879) is illustrative of some of the boundaries and possibilities surrounding African American women in the early 19th-century. A black New Englander, Maria Miller was 23 when she married a Boston shipping agent, James W. Stewart, who was friends with David Walker and involved with Boston’s black Masonic organizations. Widowed in 1829, and denied her husband’s estate by Boston authorities, Stewart taught at a black school and began writing—initially publishing a twelve-page essay in pamphlet form, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build, in 1831. She followed that text with another pamphlet, Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, the next year, and then she began a brief series of lectures in 1833. The lectures were reported in the Liberator—which had also published some of her earlier work—and caused significant controversy: though she did not echo Walker’s calls for revolution, both her place as a woman at the lectern and her unflinching critique of hypocrisy and racism were revolutionary.

In taking the podium in the early 1830s, she was entering an intensely masculine space—one often limited to black ministers and well-known male activists; in her final Boston lecture, though, she argued that women throughout history “have had a voice in moral, religious, and political subjects” and asked rhetorically “What if I am a woman; is not the God of ancient times the God of these modern days?”15 Further, her lectures were, in the words of black Garrisonian William Cooper Nell (1816–1874), filled with “holy zeal,” taking up all of the fiery evangelism of Walker’s Appeal, even if she held back from advocating violence.16 That, in addition to an all-women audience tied to Boston’s Afric-American Female Intelligence Society, she lectured to audiences of both men and women—“promiscuous audiences” in the language of the day—worried some leading African Americans; that she critiqued black masculinities as part of her larger arguments may well have been, as Carla Peterson argues, “a fatal rhetorical miscalculation.”17 While her 1835 Productions (published with Garrison’s aid) brought together much of her work in one large pamphlet, she left Boston for New York and published little more until the late 1850s, when she placed work in the AME Church’s Repository of Religion and Literature.

Several facets of Stewart’s early career speak directly to the places of black women in early black print culture. Her lack of formal education beyond Sabbath School and her eventual move into teaching embody shifts during the period surrounding women’s education. Even as they far surpassed the opportunities for most enslaved and free African American women of the period, the chances offered to Stewart were profoundly limited—far less than those afforded to Philip Bell, for example, who was only five years her junior. The New York African Free School, for example, established a girls’ school in 1792, but its curriculum placed heavy emphasis on domestic arts and sciences like needlework and sewing. In some ways, Stewart’s generation of women can be credited with broadening educational structures to create more opportunities for women readers and writers.

Stewart’s work with the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society reminds that a growing number of female groups—benevolent societies, literary clubs, religious associations, social circles, Masonic auxiliaries—were engaging with print culture. Elizabeth McHenry’s Forgotten Readers offers pioneering discussion of some of these organizations, and, while scholars have not yet found a wealth of print production, pamphlets like the 1834 “Address Delivered Before the African Female Benevolent Society of Troy” (New York) by Elizabeth Wicks (birth and death dates unknown) suggests that, even if such groups did not produce print, they were composed of skilled readers and writers. One need only scan the glorious antebellum albums of black Philadelphians Amy Matilda Cassey, Martina Dickerson, and Mary Anne Dickerson now held at the Library Company of Philadelphia to see the ways that art and letters figured into some early African American women’s lives: even if the results did not reach print, they drew heavily on print.

It should be noted, too, that such women’s groups were often early supporters of both black and abolitionist periodicals—so much so that Garrison included a “Ladies Department” in the Liberator. They were also critical to the convention movement—not only because convention attendees from far away were unlikely to find lodging or food in white establishments but because of what the Colored Conventions Project rightly called “crucial work . . . in the broader social networks.”18 While, again, such opportunities were open to only a small number of black women (almost always free, if not free-born; at least of the middling classes; almost always living in the North, often in urban settings), such women, like their male organizational counterparts, fostered black print culture.

Stewart’s publication in the Liberator certainly marks that periodical’s openness to texts by women—part of a broader equal rights agenda that cut Garrison and his followers out of some abolitionist and civil rights circles. Garrison was also supportive of the writing of Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806–1882), in part because that long-time Philadelphia teacher and leader of the city’s Black Female Literary Society led an important early fundraiser for the paper, and in part simply because he recognized her talents. Sarah Forten (1814–1883), an associate of Douglass and daughter of James Forten, also contributed to the Liberator’s pages in its early days. Avoiding some of the public pressure placed on Stewart by using pseudonyms (including “Zillah,” “Magawisca,” and “Ada”), Sarah Douglass and Forten nonetheless set the stage for a wide range of later black women who wrote for the Liberator, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. The earliest black periodicals were not always as open to women contributors even though they often garnered readers, subscribers, and fundraisers from women’s groups. Bell’s Colored American, for example, was not as open as the Liberator or as the New York periodical The Mirror of Liberty, edited by David Ruggles (1810–1849), whose July 1838 issue included a section titled “Ladies’ Mirror of Liberty,” a “department . . . always open to the ladies.” But by the mid-19th century, some black and some abolitionist periodicals offered a range of publication opportunities to select black women, and Bell’s later California work showed a marked expansion of his sense of women and print.

Stewart’s focus on faith structures—for her logic, her evidence, her form, and her rhetoric—also highlight the fact that many of the early black women entering print culture felt themselves called to do so by their faith. The story of Jarena Lee (1783–?) offers both a useful corollary and a fascinating counter to Stewart’s experiences. Lee’s own conversion had been tied to Richard Allen, and though she felt called to preach herself, she instead married a minister in 1811. After his death a few years later, her call came again. Allen initially denied her application for permission to preach, but, impressed with her charisma, oratorical ability, and zeal, he relented, first allowing her to hold prayer meetings in her home and then later supporting her as a traveling evangelist, a move that allowed him to endorse her (indeed, she attended the 1823 New York AME Church Conference) without having to assign her a specific church.

Lee preached widely across the Northeast and eastern Midwest and, in 1836, published her twenty-page Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, A Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach. Cheaply-made and designed for distribution as she traveled, this text served as the base for her much longer 1849 Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel. In many ways as, or even more revolutionary than Stewart in her representations and performances of gender, Lee nonetheless had the sanction of one of the most powerful figures in organized African-American religion; she also had a ready audience for her print work that came from her oral preaching. These factors allowed her to fashion a public career in ways Stewart could not. It seems likely that Lee served as a concrete model for Zilpha Elaw (c. 1790–1873), another early black woman evangelist who sometimes traveled and preached with Lee. Widowed after a troubling marriage, Elaw taught school for a time before beginning to preach. While she did not link herself to an established denomination, she had some AME connections and, like Lee, stunning powers as a preacher. Eventually, she moved to Great Britain, where she continued to preach and, in 1846, published her Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, and Ministerial Travels and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, an American Female of Colour.

The nexus of religious engagement and print culture in the lives of early black women writers can be seen in a range of other texts. Certainly, the 1841 Essays; Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose and Poetry by Ann Plato (1820–?) featured such, not only in the pious tone and content of her work but also in the endorsement from her Connecticut pastor, conventioneer, and author James W. C. Pennington. The eighty-eight-page Memoir of James Jackson, the Attentive and Obedient Scholar who Died in Boston, October 31, 1833, Aged Six Years and Eleven Months, written by Susan Paul (1809–1841) published in 1835, not only highlights the importance of Christian education, but also links Christian theology and practice with abolitionism—a key goal, given Paul’s membership in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, ties to Garrison, and her activist family background. And it is certainly present in several of the faith-centered poems in the recently rediscovered first volume of poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins (later, Harper; 1825–1911), the pamphlet-sized Forest Leaves, published in the mid-1840s. What is striking in these and other women’s texts of the period—from the dictated 1838 Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge to the transatlantic The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, by Mary Prince (c. 1788–?), published in London in 1831—is that black women were beginning to find creative ways to enter black print culture in significant numbers.


Given this long history of both individual and group contributions, it is no surprise that black print culture saw a flurry of activity in the 1840s and early 1850s, parallel to the material and geographic expansion in the larger US print world.

Some existing engines of organizational print expanded significantly. By 1845, the Colored Convention movement, for example, had fostered more than a dozen major meetings, not only in major centers of free black life like Philadelphia and New York, but also in locations like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Portland, Maine. These gatherings published texts ranging from the brief circular distributed by the Indiana meeting to full pamphlets. Various black churches were gaining purchase across the North, too, and sometimes expanding their print work. While not published by the AME Book Concern, the 1833 Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, for example, was deeply tied to the continuing rise of AME print—which would manifest itself in the publication of updated Doctrine and Discipline volumes and hymnals as well as the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Magazine in September 1841. Planned as a monthly but never financially stable, it nonetheless managed to produce 24 issues before closing in 1848, and it featured work by a bevy of future church leaders including Daniel Payne. The Magazine would also highlight the importance of periodicals to the growing church, so much so that 1848 also saw the beginnings of the Christian Herald, an AME Church newspaper that, in 1852, became the Christian Recorder.

The AME Magazine also highlighted the ways in which developments in print technology and distribution were beginning to allow wider periodical publication—a trend African-American print activists seized on. David Ruggles’s Mirror of Liberty had already managed a small set of issues—waffling between magazine and newspaper—between 1838 and 1841, and William Whipper’s monthly National Reformer, based in Philadelphia and supported by the American Moral Reform Society, managed to stay afloat for parts of 1838 and 1839. A group of free African Americans in New Orleans were able to publish a set of issues of the French-language L’Album Litteraire in 1843. The early 1840s also saw newspapers like Stephen Myers’s Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate, published out of Albany in 1842; David Jenkins’s Columbus, Ohio-based Palladium of Liberty; and Garnet and William G. Allen’s Troy, New York-based Watchman, which morphed into the Clarion, begun in 1842. A former carrier for the Colored American, Thomas Hamilton (1823–1865), began a long career producing black print with a weekly newspaper titled The People’s Press in 1841, and The Mystery, a Pittsburgh venture that involved a young Martin Delany (1812–1885), was published between 1843 and 1847 before folding and selling its equipment to the AME Christian Herald.

Springing from desires like those described in the opening editorial of Freedom’s Journal, but also summarized by Frances Foster, more African Americans, sometimes working within groups, also moved into print. When Robert Benjamin Lewis (1798–1858), for example, entered print culture with his Light and Truth; Collected from the Bible and Ancient and Modern History, Containing the Universal History of the Colored and the Indian Race, initially published in 1836, and then expanded in 1843, his motives likely combined a faith-centered black nationalism, a recognition of the forms of racism W.E.B. Du Bois would later mark with the phrase “the propaganda of history,” and a desire for profit. When, later in the 19th century, African Americans—including early black printer Benjamin F. Roberts (1814–1881)—reprinted Light and Truth, it was with recognition of the importance of black people writing black history.19 In diverse ways, that sensibility also shaped Hosea Easton’s 1838 Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Political Condition of the Colored People, James Pennington’s 1841 Text Book on the Origin and History . . . of The Colored People, and even, in very different ways, Joseph Willson’s pseudonymous 1841 Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society in Philadelphia. William Allen’s 1849 biographical anthology Wheatley, Banneker, and Horton hoped to do similar work with an emphasis on African-American literary history.

The pamphleteering tradition continued to produce striking prose arguments, especially the 1838 Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, by Robert Purvis (1810–1898), which fought desperately to save some of the rights of Pennsylvania’s free African Americans. And African Americans in more diverse locations engaged with print. The free and well-to-do black New Orleans literary circle tied to L’Album Litteraire and led by Armand Lanusse (1812–1868) produced what is arguably the first anthology of African American writers, the fascinating 1845 Les Cenelles. New Orleans’s Gens de Couleur Libres also reached out internationally; New Orleans-born Victor Sejour (1817–1874) moved to Paris and published his first short story “Le Mulatre” in 1837, went on to write both poetry and plays, and was popular in France until the 1850s. By the later 1850s, African Americans in locations from Baltimore, Indiana, and California would make their mark in print. In short, against all odds and often in precarious positions, black print culture was expanding in ways a young Philip Bell would have only dreamed of.

Slave Narratives

All of these developments happened during a period when antislavery print culture—albeit much of it white-run—was growing rapidly. The Liberator remained a mainstay of periodical culture, but it was joined by the National Anti-Slavery Standard in 1840. The Standard was edited by a range of abolitionists during its thirty-year run—including both Lydia Maria Child and her husband David—and, like the Liberator, had a wide range of black contributors. The American Anti-Slavery society published almanacs, songsters, tracts, annual reports, and even, between 1836 and 1838, a children’s periodical called The Slave’s Friend. Not to be outdone, the Tappan brothers and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society published a periodical, the AFASS Reporter, between 1836 and 1854 and a bevy of other texts. The Ohio-based Anti-Slavery Bugle began in 1845 and was only one of the dozens of more local abolitionist papers spread across the North, some lasting only a year or two and some lasting a decade or more. Some of these periodicals included black voices in the midst of arguments and stories about black people that were written by white activists.

Without a doubt, one of the most important nexuses of early black print culture and the (white-dominated) print culture of antislavery activism was the slave narrative. While the range of content and approaches in slave narratives is both amazing and diverse, these texts were often designed for two central functions: white abolitionists often wanted to share first-hand stories of the experiences of enslaved people, and black authors, in addition to supporting this goal, wanted to record and share their life stories for diverse reasons.

Even if many (free, middle-class, formally-educated) African Americans in the North who were active in print culture could not write slave narratives, their efforts shaped a print world that created spaces for these authors, though such spaces sometimes competed or conflicted with white antislavery spaces. Philip Bell’s relationship with Frederick Douglass, which remains understudied, offers a quick lens: Bell’s work with Garrison and the Liberator, Douglass’s interactions with black New Yorkers, their shared work at Colored Conventions, diverse common friends and colleagues all enabled what ended up being a decades-long friendship that included Douglass learning from Bell’s print expertise and Bell growing to more fully understand the power of the slave system in the United States. Their work often appeared in the same venues, even as their ideas sometimes clashed, creating fascinating dialogues for readers. In this same vein, slave narratives and broader black print (Figure 4) regularly intersected and intertwined even as they sometimes diverged.

Figure 4. Sheet Music for “The Fugitive’s Song,” Featuring an Illustration of Frederick Douglass, published by Henry Prentiss in Boston in 1845. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-7823.

A history of the multi-dimensional, long-lasting, transnational slave narrative genre needs to acknowledge that, while the genre was monumentally important, it was part of and functioned in dialogue with broad and deep matrices of early black print. First, while a number of contemporary readers are at least passingly familiar with Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and the 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), both literary masterworks, scholarly suggestions that these texts are representative of the genre are, at best, overgeneralizations. The genre was immensely diverse from its earliest days, just as the life stories and goals of Briton Hammon and Olaudah Equiano, for instance, were immensely different, and Mary Prince’s transatlantic narrative of 1831 was massively different from William Grimes’s US-centered 1825 Life. The North American Slave Narratives project lists over 30 pre-1835 autobiographical, biographical, or fictionalized slave narratives—and simply these three listed categories suggest that narratives of slavery had already become too broad to easily lump together.

What we tend to think of as classic slave narratives—a term often centered on Douglass’s Narrative—began in earnest in the late 1830s, when organized US antislavery activists expanded and updated the appeals to sentiment noted above, began to support lectures by self-emancipated African Americans, and began to actively address growing interest in stories of enslavement through the power of cheap print.20 The early moves in this direction were not without bumps: the first extended slave narrative published by the American Anti-Slavery Society, the 1838 Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, was attacked as a fraud,21 and that debate paired with earlier texts’ prefatory patterns and the larger American culture’s immense racism, meant that many slave narratives that followed opened with supposed authenticating documents, in which (often white) figures of authority vouched for a text’s veracity. Some early narratives like Charles Ball’s 1836 Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball were dictated to white amanuenses, raising questions about authorship and editorial intervention that demand consideration within discussions of the genre.

But audiences on both sides of the Atlantic found the stories compelling, and so texts from Moses Roper’s 1837 Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery (originally published in London to support his lecturing in Great Britain and republished in Philadelphia the next year) to Lunsford Lane’s Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C. (originally published in Boston in 1842 and then released in three more editions during the 1840s) proved immensely popular and effective in foregrounding questions about the US system of slavery. Still, while Douglass’s Narrative was “Published at the Anti-Slavery Office” in Boston, prefaced by William Lloyd Garrison and another prominent white abolitionist (Wendell Phillips), and tied to Douglass’s work as an antislavery lecturer, Teresa Goddu asserts that “publishing arrangements varied both across and within categories” of slave narratives. While Ball’s narrative was financed by subscription, and Williams’s was fully funded by the AAS, “William Wells Brown had to pay to publish his work that came off the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Press,” and “self-published narratives were often financed up front, as in the case of Harriet Jacobs.”22

If organized white abolition groups were uneven in financially supporting slave narratives, their leaders had no hesitation in using those stories. The American Anti-Slavery Society’s 1839 American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, compiled by white activists Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimke Weld, and Sarah Grimke, shared a stunning number of brief slave narratives, for example, as did Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1853 Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a massive, multi-genre volume she compiled as a kind of proof-text for her 1852 blockbuster novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Goddu rightly notes that “slave narratives were also recirculated in a variety of different texts” from almanacs and sheet music, to antislavery periodicals, to more mainstream periodicals.23

Black Power, Black Stories

Given this and the diversity within the genre and within authors’ life circumstances, for at least some African-American authors of slave narratives, the question of authorial control over their stories became critical. Brief discussion of Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown can aid in understanding how some formerly enslaved people became print activists and how much more complex the black print landscape became in the years immediately before and then during the Civil War. After an eye-opening post-Narrative trip to Great Britain, Douglass returned to the United States committed to managing his own public presence (Figure 5)—to contributing philosophically and strategically to the antislavery movement, rather than functioning solely as a form of evidence, and to moving into broader civil rights activism.

Figure 5. Frederick Douglass in January 1862. Portrait by John White Hurn. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-24165.

Douglass’s first major step—often noted as his break with Garrison—was the founding of his own newspaper, the North Star, which began publication in Rochester, New York. A weekly, Douglass’s paper continued until 1851 when, merging with white political abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s Liberty Party Paper, it shifted into Frederick Douglass’s Paper. Douglass’s growing celebrity within and beyond the movement aided his newspaper’s circulation, as did savvy editorial choices including recruiting powerful voices including Martin Delany, James McCune Smith (sometimes writing as “Communipaw”), and Bell (sometimes writing as “Cosmopolite”). In 1855, Douglass also took the radical step of not simply enlarging his Narrative, but revising it and changing its title. The resulting My Bondage and My Freedom paid much more attention to the perils of “free” life in a racist North, theorized slave power more fully, and set aside the white “authenticating” prefaces by Garrison and Phillips in favor of an extended “Introduction” by James McCune Smith. These years also saw Douglass engage in significant print experimentation, from his own exploration of different genres (including writing a novella, “The Heroic Slave,” in 1853), his use of some of his newspaper to reprint, in serial form, Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House (placing antislavery and larger reform work clearly in dialogue with questions of Victorian popular culture, transatlanticism, economics and oppression, and what might be possible in an antislavery newspaper), and his attempts to make his paper truly national (in this last, in the 1850s, even working to build a subscriber base among African Americans who had moved to California as part of the Gold Rush).

Brown’s exploration of print possibilities was no less rich. An early conventioneer like Douglass, Brown also rose to prominence as an antislavery lecturer, and his Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave was published in Boston in 1847, then tied to a multi-year series of lectures in Great Britain, in London in 1849. By 1865, he had published Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853), the first novel by an African American; Miralda, a revision of Clotel serialized in 1860–1861 in the Weekly Anglo-African, an important New York black paper; Clotelle (1864), a version for James Redpath’s “Campfire Series” of books for Union soldiers; Three Years in Europe (1852) and The American Fugitive in Europe (1855), striking early examples of African-American travel literature; The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), a major early work of African American history; and The Escape (1858), perhaps the first published play by an African American—as well as a wide range of other texts. Brown’s dancing among and across genres and his creative appropriation of texts by a wide range of other writers (as well as his consistent adaptation of his own life story) all suggest both a wide field of possibility and a real connoisseur of that field.24

The years just before and of the US Civil War saw more African Americans entering that field in more ways. Douglass’s North Star was founded just before the AME Church began its own Christian Herald. (Indeed, part of the reason Martin Delany left The Mystery was to work with Douglass.) By 1865, after fits and starts, the Herald, as the Christian Recorder, would become one of the most important black print venues in the nation—publishing work by a bevy of major black writers and thinkers for decades to come and reaching a truly national audience (moving South as soon as Union troops took back territory). While only limited work has been done on the subscribers to early black periodicals, Black Print Unbound shares information on a significant sample of Recorder subscribers between 1861 and 1867 and finds, in addition to wide diversity across gender, region, and class, that over 99 percent were African American. This evidence, paired with what scholars have learned about the content of early black periodicals, suggests the power and potential of this type of publication venue, and, post-1860, a growing list of black newspapers would start across the nation. In California, where black readers thirsted for Frederick Douglass’s Paper—and read in it work by their own William Newby (1828–1859; writing as “Nubia”)—the Convention movement helped set up San Francisco’s first black newspaper, The Mirror of the Times, in 1857, setting in motion events that led to the Pacific Appeal in 1862, the Elevator in 1865, and Philip Bell’s work with both.

Douglass and Brown’s experimentation with fiction opened the door for Martin Delany’s novel of slave revolution, Blake; or the Huts of America, which was partially serialized in 1859 in the Anglo-African Magazine and then revised and serialized again in the Weekly Anglo-African. Philadelphian Frank J. Webb (1828–1894) penned a novel of free black life, The Garies and Their Friends (1859); New Hampshire native Harriet Wilson (1825–1900) experimented with fictionalized autobiography in Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859); and Pennsylvanian Julia C. Collins (?–1865) serialized her novel The Curse of Caste in the Christian Recorder (1865). Frances Ellen Watkins Harper would explore linkages between the lecture circuit and print by publishing not only individual poems in diverse periodicals but also, in 1854 and then in a revised and enlarged 1857 edition, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, which she sold at her lectures. Sojourner Truth (c. 1799–1883) made corollary experiments by selling photographs of herself at her lectures.

None of these diverse examples should suggest that US print had suddenly opened to black writers and editors. Quite the opposite: the first editions of Clotel and The Garies appeared in Great Britain; Delany was unable to find a publisher of bound books willing to take a chance on Blake; Wilson self-published her narrative and then distributed it through the networks she had established peddling hair tonic; and black periodicals regularly failed. American racism continued and expanded; while black print flowered in the mid-1850s, the US Supreme Court asserted, in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”; and even amid the massive hopes for black print and larger citizenship questions in the Civil War years, the famed “Emancipation Proclamation,” distributed widely in diverse forms of print, freed only enslaved African Americans in areas that were in open rebellion to the Union, forcing many other enslaved African Americans to wait for the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment at the end of 1865 to legally gain freedom.

Philip Bell, more talented and well-read than many white editors in New York, could not even write for white papers unless he submitted behind a pseudonym. While he had carved out a niche among New York City’s free black community, the 1850s emphasized how limited his options were. His journey to that San Francisco office—similar to those taken by other California transplants, like poets James Monroe Whitfield (1822–1871) and James Madison Bell (1826–1902), who helped Philip Bell create a lively black print culture in San Francisco—was shaped by a combination of the massive limits placed on black print by a white racist state and the kind of stunning drive African American print activists had demonstrated for over a century. Sitting in the Phoenix building busily working through copy, he had seen black print possibilities burn again and again—and again and again rise from the ashes to form something even stronger.

These stories have much to tell historians about the revisions necessary to histories of US print culture, which, until the 21st century often focused not just on white men, but on a small selection of individual white men often represented as bold innovators and entrepreneurs, seemingly free from many of the constraints of their historical moments, who are said to have discovered great authors and helped them to produce “great books.” While the stories introduced above certainly note important individuals—albeit, in ways that fight traditional white senses of what is important, black men and black women who interacted complexly with and who sometimes fought valiantly against their historical circumstances—they are also stories of complex networks. Those networks included less formal groups of friends, schoolmates, and local connections, but also more formal organizations like churches, benevolent groups, and literary societies, as well as state and national conventions tied to broad movements including abolitionism and civil rights. Such networks demand much further study. While the stories certainly speak of great books, some of the texts central to an understanding of African-American print engagement—one thinks of Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig—did not go through expected publication channels at all but were, because such channels often implicitly or explicitly barred African-American authors, the result of creative modes of self- or subsidized publication. Here, again, black print teaches the necessity of widening scholarly senses of book history. Just as important, the stories present a much wider array of print objects than just bound books including, especially, periodicals. Until the late 20th century, many of these objects, including now hard-to-find early black newspapers and magazines, were often dismissed as ephemeral.

This is a hard truth, for it emphasizes how many white people and institutions of 19th-century America similarly saw African Americans themselves as ephemeral Others, rather than citizens or even persons. Facing that truth means learning the stories of print culture and the stories told by black print culture as part of the larger struggle, not only to broaden senses of literature and history but to remember how much those black lives and black stories mattered and still matter.

Discussion of the Literature

In a 2010 Book History essay titled “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian: African American Cultures of Print—The State of the Discipline,” Leon Jackson mourned that “to speak of ‘the state of the discipline’ when discussing print culture and the African-American experience, then, is misleading, inasmuch as there is no truly disciplinary praxis growing out these two fields on which to issue statements.”25 Nonetheless, Jackson hoped that “the circulation of book historical concepts may be reaching a tipping point: one in which scholars of African American studies and scholars of print culture will learn to share their secrets and decipher one another’s coded messages.”26

One might suggest that circulation of African Americanist approaches may also have reached a tipping point, and that both points were necessary for fruitful exchange. The 21st century has seen a range of African Americanist scholars arguing for a different kind of book history, one that begins to recognize, first, that some forms of book history and book collecting (and, so, archival practices) have long been the province of elite white men and so have ignored or exoticized black print, and, second, that African Americans were forced to come to books (and print more broadly) differently than their white counterparts because of centuries of individual and institutional racism—a complex of ideas and practices that included, but went well beyond, chattel slavery and the expansive places slave power and complicity held in early America.

Some African Americans had arguably been practicing such alternative approaches to print culture since the black bibliophiles of the 19th and early 20th centuries, like Robert Mara Adger and Arturo Schomburg, began gathering and preserving textual objects that the mainstream white culture dismissed, ignored, or tried to forget; certainly, too, such approaches were at the heart of both early black librarianship and African Americanist literary history and criticism, which often centered on placing black texts into wider, if often resistant, academic and public conversations. Such work began to enter the American academy most richly in the late 1960s, in large part because of the scholarly activism of a small but growing number of black professors and students moving into the broader academy.

While a full history of the scholarly development of African American literary studies and African American cultural studies is beyond the scope of this article, their efforts set the groundwork for crucial late-20th century texts like Penelope Bullock’s 1981 The Afro-American Periodical Press, 1838–1909, a trail-blazing bibliography and history; William Andrews’s 1986 To Tell a Free Story, a skilled survey of a massive number of black autobiographical texts; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s immensely influential 1988 The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism; Frances Smith Foster’s 1993 Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892, one of the richest early treatments of early black women’s writing; and Carla Peterson’s 1995 “Doers of the Word”: African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880), an immense contribution to thinking about the nexus of oral and written practices in various public spheres. Early work fueled, as well, an active recovery of a fuller range of early black texts, in individual anthologies like Joan Sherman’s 1974 Invisible Poets, a key early collection of early black poetry later expanded in her 1992 African American Poets of the Nineteenth Century; Foster’s 1994 omnibus edition of three of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s serialized Christian Recorder novels; and larger projects, especially the multi-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, led by Gates, and the digital North American Slave Narratives collection, led by Andrews.

It is in these frames, in dialogue with exciting 21st-century re-evaluations of American and African American history like Manisha Sinha’s 2016 The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, that 21st-century African Americanist scholars of black print have begun to produce a much wider array of scholarship, including further path-breaking work by Foster (especially on Afro-Protestant print) and Peterson (on a wide range of subjects); broad and deep surveys like Dickson Bruce’s 2001 The Origins of African American Literature and John Ernest’s 2014 edited collection, The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative; Elizabeth McHenry’s amazing 2002 study of black readers and black reading communities, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies; and more recent work on black periodicals like Eric Gardner’s 2009 Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature and 2015 Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture, as well as Benjamin Fagan’s 2016 The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation. Continually widening recovery efforts, ranging from the stunning online Colored Conventions Project, to the 2015 rediscovery of Harper’s first (c. 1845) volume of poetry, promise a fuller range of texts, even though many digitized early black texts remain locked behind pay walls and issues of access place notable limits. Nonetheless, the new questions that come with such rediscoveries will shape the next generation of scholarship on black print.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
  • Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. The Origins of African American Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001.
  • Bullock, Penelope. The Afro-American Periodical Press, 1838–1909. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
  • Ernest, John. A Nation within a Nation: Organizing African American Communities before the Civil War. Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011.
  • Ernest, John, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Fagan, Benjamin. The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016.
  • Foster, Frances Smith. Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  • Foster, Frances Smith. “A Narrative of the Interesting Origins and (Somewhat) Surprising Developments of African American Print Culture.” American Literary History 17, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 714–740.
  • Gardner, Eric. Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
  • Gardner, Eric. Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Graham, Maryemma, and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds. The Cambridge History of African American Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Jackson, Leon. “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian: African American Cultures of Print—The State of the Discipline,” Book History 13 (2010): 251–308.
  • McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Newman, Richard, Patrick Rael, and Phillip Lapsansky, eds. Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African American Protest Literature, 1790–1860. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • Peterson, Carla. “Doers of the Word”: African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880). New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Sherman, Joan. African American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
  • Sinha, Manisha. The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.


  • 1. William Wells Brown, The Rising Son; Or, the Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (Boston: A. G. Brown, 1873), 470–471.

  • 2. The best biography of Wheatley to date is Vincent Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

  • 3. See, for example, Berlin’s “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America,” William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 2 (1996): 251–288.

  • 4. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 143.

  • 5. Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., The Origins of African American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 14.

  • 6. Bruce, Origins of African American Literature, 20.

  • 7. Frances Smith Foster, “A Narrative of the Interesting Origins and (Somewhat) Surprising Developments of African American Print Culture,” American Literary History 17, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 716.

  • 8. Foster, “A Narrative of the Interesting Origins,” 717 and 715.

  • 9. Foster, “A Narrative of the Interesting Origins,” 715.

  • 10. See Eric Gardner, Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) for some of these efforts.

  • 11. For a pioneering consideration of Walker, see Peter P. Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

  • 12. See especially Marcy J. Dinius, “‘Look!! Look!!! at This!!!!": The Radical Typography of David Walker's ‘Appeal,’” PMLA 126, no. 1 (2011): 55–72.

  • 13. Daniel Alexander Payne, History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Nashville, TN: AME Sunday School Union, 1891), 102.

  • 14. See Benjamin Fagan, The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

  • 15. Maria W. Stewart, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart presented to the First Africa Baptist Church & Society, of the City of Boston (Boston: Friends of Freedom and Virtue, 1835), 75.

  • 16. Nell to Garrison (February 19, 1852), in William Cooper Nell: Selected Writings 1832–1874, eds. Dorothy Porter Wesley and Constance Porter Uzelac (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2002), 297.

  • 17. “Doers of the Word”: African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 68. Peterson’s discussion of Stewart remains one of the best available.

  • 18. Colored Conventions Project, “About the Colored Conventions,” Colored Conventions: Bringing Nineteenth-Century Black Organizing to Digital Life.

  • 19. On Light and Truth, see especially John Ernest’s Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794–1861 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

  • 20. William Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986) remains a strong primer on slave narratives and broader black autobiography.

  • 21. These events are detailed in Hank Trent, ed., Narrative of James Williams (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

  • 22. Teresa A. Goddu, “The Slave Narrative as Material Text,” The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative, ed. John Ernest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 152.

  • 23. Goddu, “The Slave Narrative as Material Text,” 159.

  • 24. Among recent work on Brown, see Ezra Greenspan, William Wells Brown: An American Life (New York: WW Norton, 2014); and Geoffrey Sanborn Plagiarama! William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

  • 25. Leon Jackson, “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian: African American Cultures of Print—The State of the Discipline,” Book History 13 (2010): 254.

  • 26. Jackson, “The Talking Book,” 254.