The Baltimore-based Afro-American, celebrating its 100th anniversary this month, is one of only five black-oriented newspapers established before 1900 still publishing today. That kind of longevity merits recognition.
The first black newspaper in the United States, Freedom's Journal, was established by Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm in New York City in 1827. The second was North Star, founded by Frederick Douglass in 1847 to agitate against slavery. Through their persistent calls for equal rights for all Americans, these two papers defined the mission of the black press for the next 150 years.
After the Civil War, independent black newspapers sprang up in the North and Midwest. Pioneering editors like Robert S. Abbott of the Chicago Defender and T. T. Fortune of the New York Age crusaded against lynchings in the South and championed free public schools, improved sanitation and better police protection in the North.
The black press set out to keep its readers informed of important issues, expose injustice and corruption and promote self-help groups like the NAACP.
After World War I, black journalists like the late Roy Wilkins emerged as leading civil rights figures. Meanwhile, black newspaper editors promoted the mass migration of Southern blacks so vigorously that sociologist Gunnar Myrdal declared that "it was the Negro press which made the northward migration into a protest movement."
The Afro-American was in the forefront of this activism. During the 1930s and '40s it crusaded tirelessly against lynchings and Jim Crow.
When America entered World War II, the Afro and other black papers protested the War Department's decision to maintain segregated armed forces so vociferously that the services were forced to admit blacks in combat roles previously denied them, such as military pilots and armored troops. The press' agitation surely helped hasten the desegregation of all the armed forces after the war.
At its peak during the 1950s and early '60s, the Afro had a circulation of more than 100,000 and editions in Washington, Richmond and New Jersey as well as Baltimore. It was also an influential and respected local political player whose endorsements were coveted by aspiring officeholders.
In recent years, the Afro has suffered the troubles afflicting most American newspapers -- competition from radio and TV and increasing costs. Yet after a century of publication, the paper founded by John H. Murphy Sr. as a humble church newsletter remains a symbol of the black press' historic role of advocacy and agitation. May it live to keep up the good fight for another 100 years.