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Since 1827: “We Wish To Plead Our Own Cause”



By Brenda H. Andrews
New Journal and Guide

This week, March 16, 2022, marks 195 years since two men in New York—Rev. Samuel Cornish and John Russworm‚—published the first Black newspaper, aptly named Freedom’s Journal. Their action began what we call today The Black Press of America, the oldest Black business in the nation.

Certainly Cornish and Russworm encountered an uncertain and unfriendly reception from Blacks and Whites on March 16, 1827 when they wrote, “We wish to plead our own cause; For too long others have spoken for us, now we speak for ourselves.”

It was a time in American history when most  Blacks were enslaved Africans and could neither read nor write by law and many of those who could read did so in fear. And yet, Cornish and Russworm and those who supported them knew Black men and women had to “tell our own story” if we were ever to be free.

Freedom’s Journal did not last very long. But the seed had been planted that expressing the “Black perspective” had a humanizing value on an oppressed race of people who were considered only three-fifths of a person in the land they occupied. It lit a fire for self-expression that continues to this day.

The New Journal and Guide began in Norfolk in 1900, just a few decades after emancipation as a newsletter for a benevolent association of Black men whose mission was to aid women and children. It evolved to become one of the leading Black newspapers in the country under the 50-plus years of family-owned leadership of P.B. Young, Sr.

and his team that included his sons and dedicated others.

Specific to the New Journal and Guide’s contributions is its 1930s campaign to raise funds for the Scottsboro (Ala.) boys legal defense. The Guide was one of only two Black newspapers allowed in the courtroom to cover the national news of the nine young Black men falsely accused of rape.

Also, the little-known story of  the U.S.S. Mason “experiment” which desegregated the U.S. Navy was captured by Guide photojournalist Thomas Young, who was commissioned to sail aboard the maiden Mason voyage and tell the story for posterity.

Here in Norfolk, Young, Sr. successfully championed the eradication of  the city’s slums of the 1940s and helped to introduce decent and affordable public housing for poor Blacks. He was instrumental in the foundations of Norfolk State University, Norfolk Community Hospital, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, the Hunton YMCA, and the list goes on.

When P. B.Young, Sr. died in October 1962, he left a personal and professional legacy of influence in the legal, political, and journalistic spheres in Norfolk and the nation at large that was passed to subsequent Owners to uphold.

Here we are in 2022, and  for me, the only Woman Owner over the past three-plus decades of our 122-year journey, I take the mission of the Guide to “tell our own story” as seriously as ever. Our paper fights weekly for professional respect, for economic and racial consideration and equity, and for the continuation of democracy so we can tell our stories from the perspective of the African American community because we know our roots.

The Black Press is both a ministry of public service and a business endeavor that must sustain itself in order to deliver news, information and commentary. The future of the New Journal and Guide is based on how successfully we navigate the changing ways people today view, receive and value news, especially with the emergence of faster, cheaper and more easily accessible digital platforms that distribute and exhibit “news”.

While the digital media revolution or the “Transformative Vision” from print dominance to digital is underway with great merits, one danger is that digital media and social networking platforms are not held accountable to “truth” nor to the same standards of quality journalism that have been required for print publications. Everybody who can put together a sentence can be a “citizen” journalist and too often what is passed as “news” may be gossip, disinformation or misinformation without consequences. This competes with legitimate and professional media outlets like the Guide, and challenges us to remain vigilant, whether in print or on our electronic platforms.

As we move increasingly to a world of digital media communications, there is a special consideration for the Black Press to be made for the value of our enduring print publications. We have seen during this continuing  coronavirus pandemic that has necessitated the use of virtual communications for teaching, working, and shopping, it has been the Black community—rural and urban— that was most ill prepared digitally to respond successfully. Inadequate internet broadband access in underserved urban and rural communities hamper these areas, largely Black and Brown, from participating in the digital world as successfully as better served areas.

One hundred and ninety-five years after its founding on March 16, 1827, the Black Press continues because (1) it is a watchdog over if and how the stories about Black America are told; and (2) it is an incubator for news that makes history and impacts our country and our democracy.  Black Press members determine what is news and newsworthy for the communities we serve; we decide what stories must be told and exactly how these stories are to be told as events that impact Black America.

It is an important, crucial, empowering—and very humbling—role for me and other Black publishers to decide how the current events of the day are to be remembered as history after we have passed on. It is not just important to have these stories and information recorded now about the Black community. It is important WHO is telling the stories and how authentically those stories mirror the various  nuances of Black Life in America.

Now, as ever, the New Journal and Guide is counting on the support of our readers, advertisers, friends, and benefactors as we tackle the economic challenges of the 21st century that confront us as an historic and legacy-driven institution.

Thank you for standing with us as we continue to perform our role to draw attention to the issues at hand through our pages.

Happy Black Press Week!

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