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19th-Century African American Newspapers:
A Window into Life in Central Texas

Collage representing Late Nineteenth-Century African American Newspapers

 

Archeologists rely on numerous sources to help understand excavated artifacts and buildings and reconstruct the story of what happened at a site in the past. In their study of the Ransom and Sarah Williams farmstead, archeologists turned to historic newspapers printed by the black press to gain an in-depth view of black life in Travis County and Central Texas.  In the news, we find contemporary accounts, editorials, and announcements reflecting the concerns and strivings of the black community at a critical juncture in Texas history. Against this backdrop, we have a greater understanding of the cultural and political environment in which Ransom and Sarah Williams raised their family, owned and operated a farm, and made the transition from slavery to citizenship.

For this study, five newspapers were selected from the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin. Only newspapers that fell within the occupation dates of the Ransom and Sarah Williams Farmstead (ca. 1871-1905) and were printed in Austin or the greater Travis County area were reviewed. The papers are: Free Man’s Press (published only in 1868); Gold Dollar (published from 1876 to 1878 or 1880); Sunday School Herald (published only in 1892); Herald: Baptist Convention Newspaper (published from 1893 to 1917); and the Austin Searchlight (unknown publication dates; minimally 1896 and 1917). A total of 220 issues from the five newspapers were available in the archives, but only 135 issues were reviewed. Of these, most date from 1892 to 1895 and are probably quite representative of the black news journals of the 1890s. 

The Free Man’s Press was reportedly the first black newspaper printed in Texas. It was founded by a group of blacks and whites in Austin who strived to encourage political awareness in black people. The Gold Dollar was founded by the Reverend Jacob Fontaine, a former slave who became a Baptist minister and successful entrepreneur.  Fontaine’s newspaper was said to be the first black newspaper published in Austin and the greater Travis County area. The Sunday School Herald  and The Herald were published by Reverend L.L. Campbell, an esteemed Baptist minister who graduated from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas and the University of Chicago. Both papers were affiliated with the Baptist church and enjoyed the longest publication time out of all the newspapers in our sample. The Austin Searchlight was edited and published by W. P. Mabson, a former Reconstruction period legislator in the North Carolina House of Representatives. With only two issues of the newspaper stored in local archives, very little is known about it.  Mabson’s paper, however, supported the Republican political party and encouraged black racial uplift.

Explore the Newspapers

The front pages of four editions of these pioneer newspapers can be viewed below. The copies—some nearly 150 years old— are faded, torn in places, and often difficult to read. Nonetheless, they provide a very tangible sense of the issues of the time, the tone of the editors and writers, and the striving of the black community in the mid- to late 19th century.

Enlarge each image below to learn more.

 

Black newspapers emphasized civil rights, the importance of racial pride and religion, and the need for educational development.

Correspondents specifically demanded an end to lynching and segregation as well as encouraged their readers to buy land, learn a trade and support black businesses.

Photo of acob Fontaine, editor of Austin's first black newspaper, The Gold Dollar
Jacob Fontaine, editor of Austin's first black newspaper, The Gold Dollar, and an influential Baptist minister. Courtesy of Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
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Link to an image of The Free Man's Press
Link to an image of The Gold Dollar
Link to an image of The Sunday School Herald
Link to an image of The Searchlight

 

Rise of the African American Press

It is somewhat remarkable that we can peruse copies of the first black newspapers in Austin, as they were rare even in their day. Some papers were short-lived or had only sporadic publication runs. This can be attributed to the precarious nature of establishing and maintaining a black news publication following Emancipation. Many black newspapers quickly met their demise because of high rates of illiteracy, widespread economic impoverishment, and expensive operation costs. The success of black newspapers was also further hindered by racism. Black-run enterprises faced a lot of hostility from whites, and print shops were often vulnerable to violence and destruction if they challenged whites’ mistreatment of blacks.

In spite of these challenges, however, the black press played an important role in the black community and received support from individual patrons, businesses, educational institutions, and religious congregations. Editors established black newspapers in direct response to white prejudice and exclusion. Black newspapers emphasized racial equality, social inclusion, and economic self-sufficiency. They discussed civil rights, the importance of black racial pride and religion, and the need for educational development. Correspondents specifically demanded an end to lynching and segregation as well as encouraged their readers to learn a trade and support black businesses.

The importance of buying land and owning a home was also emphasized. In an article in The Free Man’s Press in August 1868, an anonymous author (probably the newspaper’s editor) summarized the general feelings about the freedom and security that came with owning a house and land. This article stressed that “A home will make the colored man a free man.”

Black newspapers such as The Gold Dollar and the Herald emphasized religious and moral instruction and imparted dominant social mores and decorum. The editors printed religious sermons, anecdotes, scriptures and other notes on the Bible. For example, in an editorial in the Herald, Reverend Campbell expressed his displeasure at children’s behavior at a Juneteenth celebration. In The Gold Dollar, August 1876, shown above, Reverend Fontaine further warned parents, “But, train him up when he is young when he is old hiel [sic] not be Hung.” Moral instruction also went together with educational training; an example of this can be seen with the first and only issue of Reverend Fontaine’s paper. It contained the alphabet in upper and lower case letters, as well as various Biblical tidbits such as the numerical equivalent of currency listed in various chapters.

Countering Negative Portrayals

The black print media also worked to counter white journalists’ inadequate or negative portrayals of blacks in their newspapers since white writers either refused to cover black life or printed erroneous and racially biased stories. Black editors countered this problem with articles, correspondence and commentaries that extensively covered their communities’ participation in social activities as well as their central needs and concerns. The black press especially sought to debunk the myth of black men as rapists. As lynching increased, black newspapers included stories about mob violence and sought to present the facts behind white hostilities. The editors countered allegations that lynched black men had raped or assaulted white women, and correspondents often revealed that the motives behind lynching were often disputes over labor or money. Black editors boldly condemned mob violence, challenged other black newspapers to agitate against lynching, and demanded that suspects get a fair trial.

They also urged their readers to register to vote and inform themselves about political issues and candidates, particularly those who would take action to prevent or check violence. An 1896 edition of The Searchlight carried the article, "Your Vote Can Check a Mob," stressing the importance of this civic duty, still new to and fraught with obstacles for emancipated African Americans.

Notices and Advertisements

Editors understood the importance of family to their black readers and included family search announcements in their newspapers. In journals such as the Gold Dollar, Free Man’s Press, and the Herald, people used these notices to announce their search for relatives from whom they were separated during slavery. The correspondents often looked for parents and siblings, and their searches listed the names of kin as well as their former slave owners. In one issue of the Gold Dollar, Reverend Fontaine offered to help subscribers locate missing kin for ten cents. It can be assumed that these searches were particularly important to Reverend Fontaine, who began his newspaper with a gold dollar that his sister gave him when they were reunited after a twenty-year separation because of slavery.

In addition to helping families, Black newspapers also helped bind communities by publishing notices of celebrations, picnics, and other events. For example, a notice of upcoming Juneteenth celebrations, titled Emancipation Proclamation for the Baptist of Texas, was run in the May 21, 1892 edition of The Sunday School Herald.  It read, in part, “The day when we were emancipated is soon to be celebrated and we call for a Grand Reunion of the Old and Young Freedmen in the great Baptist ranks of Texas.”

Similar to the white print media, the black press relied heavily on advertising fees to sustain their operations. The newspapers sought to rally the support of black readers by emphasizing the importance of black patronage to continue their operations. Supporting black newspapers was evidence of race pride, and blacks were encouraged to read them, locate more subscribers, and advertise their own trades and services in these news journals.  Advertisements highlighted the skilled labor of blacks in Austin, and subscribers promoted skilled trades such as barbers, blacksmiths, caterers, doctors, grocers, and shoemakers. Black Texas newspapers also contained advertisements for food, clothing, household items, medicine, legal advice, literary and newspaper subscriptions, and educational institutions. Patent medicines claiming to treat consumption, catarrh, blood diseases, and various female “complaints” represented a large percentage of the mass manufactured items advertised in the black newspapers.

Influence on Communities

It is probably not a coincidence that many of the medicine bottles found at the Williams farmstead are marked with the names of companies and products that were advertised in the black newspapers. This could indicate that some members of the Williams family were reading the black papers and responding to the advertisements. It may also mean that the black press influenced the local stores where the family shopped and that the black community was linked to a regional economic network of black-owned business and white enterprises that had a significant number of black customers.

One good example is the Morley Brothers Drugstore on 6th Street in downtown Austin. The newspaper sample contained 29 separate advertisements for the drugstore or specific Morley products, thus leaving no doubt that the Morleys were catering to the black consumers. The archeological link is that at least seven broken glass bottles found at the Williams farmstead were embossed with the Morley Brothers’ name and logo.

As largely urban enterprises, newspaper editors may have concentrated on products that reflected the lifestyles and experiences of their city readers. However, editors may have adhered to their agendas to impart educational and moral instruction to their subscribers with the selection of advertisers. Reverend Campbell’s Sunday School Herald and the Herald promoted only two tobacco products, Blackwell’s Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco and the Natural Leaf Tobacco of Meriwether and Company. There were no advertisements for alcohol except for the inadvertent ads for patent medicines that contained alcohol.

Whether through advertisements, news reports, or editorials, Black newspapers wielded considerable influence in the central Texas African American community in the late 19th century. Research in these historic papers is one of the most primary means for understanding the context of the times and for considering how blacks depicted their own lives in their print media. These journals were concerned with education, moral instruction, racial progress and equality. Most importantly, they were found to play a significant role in shaping black thought and political and racial ideology.

image of notice in the Free Man's Press, Aug. 1, 1868
This notice in the Free Man's Press, Aug. 1, 1868, speaks to the prejudice experienced by African Americans seeking work at the time. It makes the case that black typesetters—as well as black carpenters, cooks, and other craftsmen and laborers—could do their jobs equally as well as their white counterparts. Image courtesy of The Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Newspapers Collection-Austin).
image of the 1868 article in The Free Man's Press of Austin
Owning a home is stressed as a way to freedom in this 1868 article in The Free Man's Press of Austin. It reads in part, "It will be a home—a home for you and your children. It will be a place where you can rest in peace without fear of being molested or being made afraid by a hungry landlord." Image courtesy of Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Newspapers Collection, Austin).
Enlarge to read full article.
image of an 1896 article in The Searchlight titled "Your Vote Can Check a Mob"
An 1896 article in The Searchlight titled "Your Vote Can Check a Mob," was written in response to increasing incidences of racial violence against blacks. The unknown author is expressing the opinion that black voters can and should try to elect officials who would help curb mob violence. Image courtesy of Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Read more.
image of a notice in first issue of The Gold Dollar, August 1876
Notice in first issue of The Gold Dollar, August 1876, offering help in searching for lost relatives. In the antebellum era, many enslaved families were split up, with individuals sold to different masters and moved to other states. After emancipation, one role of black newspapers was to facilitate communication within the black community and provide a forum for lost relatives to find one another. Because the newspaper's editor, Jacob Fontaine, was separated from his family during slavery, he was keenly aware of the importance of helping others find their lost kin. Image courtesy of Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
image of notice about a Juneteenth celebration appeared in a "Local News" column in the May 21, 1892 edition of The Sunday School Herald
This notice about a Juneteenth celebration appeared in a "Local News" column in the May 21, 1892 edition of The Sunday School Herald. Juneteenth is the holiday commemorating the emancipation of the enslaved African Americans in Texas on June 19, 1865. It immediately became an important holiday for all freedmen in Texas, and the tradition spread to other states as well. Image courtesy of Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
image of the Searchlight. Courtesy of Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Local professional people advertised their services in Austin's black newspapers. Dr. B. F. Barlow advertised himself as "Colored Dentist" in The Searchlight. Courtesy of Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Enlarge to learn more and see more examples.
image of an advertisement for Morley's Drugstore, an early Austin retail store, featuring a popular "cure-all" tonic of the late 1890s
Advertisement for Morley's Drugstore, an early Austin retail store, featuring a popular "cure-all" tonic of the late 1890s. Many of the medicine bottles found at the Williams farmstead are products that were advertised in black newspapers. Several were embossed with the Morley Brothers’ name and logo.