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Fighting Slavery with the Pen

At the beginning of the 19th century, many black abolitionists favored moderate and strategic action over violence to end slavery. Since white Americans outnumbered black Americans, violence just wasn't a viable option. Even in communities where African Americans weren't outnumbered, their behavior was so restricted that amassing substantial firepower would have been difficult. Therefore, violence wasn't practical. So the pen, the written word, became one of the biggest weapons against slavery.

Proslavery factions feared African American literacy and passed many laws restricting the teaching of reading and writing to African Americans. Mere suspicion of being able to read and write posed a danger to many black Southerners, slave or free.

Slave narratives

Most white Americans were completely unfamiliar with how slaves were treated. Slave narratives were open testimony from those who actually survived the horrors, and they enlightened those who were clueless about life in bondage. Slave narratives such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave (1853) were important antislavery treatises that sold well both in the United States and abroad.

Douglass's narrative stood out because, more than other narratives, it created an emotional connection with readers. He not only detailed slavery's horrors; he made readers feel how horrible slavery felt. Other narratives outlined the injustices, but Douglass tugged at readers' heartstrings. His work underscored the fact that African Americans were indeed human beings. Slave narratives' ability to create a human connection also played an important role in the early development of African American literature.

Origins of the black press

White abolitionists proved that newspapers such as Benjamin Lundy's two publications, The Philanthropist and The Genius of Universal Emancipation, and Garrison's Liberator could be very effective tools in the fight against slavery. African American publishers found that newspapers specifically targeting African Americans created forums in which blacks could truly express who they were and where they were going. Early African American newspapers began the important legacy of providing the African American community with a voice that celebrated African American milestones as well as agitated for equal rights. The black press also became an important mechanism for galvanizing African Americans nationally.

Prior to the Civil War, more than 40 such newspapers emerged, but Freedom's Journal, launched by Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm, and The North Star, launched by Frederick Douglass, were two of the most important.

  • Freedom's Journal: The nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal pushed for an end to slavery, as well as informed the more than 300,000 free blacks in the U.S. about national and international news. The newspaper included profiles of great African Americans as well as stories about often-ignored historic achievements.
    At its height, Freedom's Journal's distribution spanned 11 states, Washington, D.C., Haiti, Europe, and Canada. Unfortunately, it folded in March 1829, in part because coeditors Russwurm and Cornish disagreed over the issue of colonization.
  • The North Star: Frederick Douglass's The North Star, first published in 1847, became the most prominent of all early African American newspapers mainly because of Douglass's stature. The North Star went beyond just advocating slavery's end and equal rights for African Americans; it also championed equal rights for women. Its motto was "Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren."

    Within these pages, Douglass expanded his vision of freedom and, like Freedom's Journal, provided a forum for critical African American issues overlooked by white abolitionist papers. The paper was far from a financial success, however. To stay afloat, Douglass continued lecturing. In 1851, he merged his paper with the Liberty Party Paper to form Frederick Douglass' Paper, which published until 1860. Douglass published a monthly before settling into political life in the 1870s.

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