Museums, Newspapers, and African American Archives

Construction_of_the_National_Museum_of_African_American_History_and_Culture

The nearing completion and grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. and broader issues surrounding the state of black museums in the United States raise all sorts of complex issues about current relationships between race, memory, remembrance, and history. Moreover, the significance of the African American History Museum arises from a current institutional terrain of black museums that is diverse and extensive in terms of location, scope and focus. Yet, more broadly, the significance of black museums today has arisen from a long history of forms of black memory and remembrance that have continually raised and engaged issues of race, identity, community, citizenship, and the writing of history.

Freedoms Journal March 30 1827

One of the most significant of these early public forms of memory and remembrance was Freedom’s Journal, the first African American owned and operated newspaper. The founding editors, Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, and other New York blacks, including the Reverend Peter Williams, Jr, first published Freedom’s Journal on Friday, March 16, 1827. The task of the paper was monumental, giving an unprecedented voice to free and enslaved African Americans. In 1829, Freedom’s Journal was superseded by The Rights of All and even that paper ended just a year later. The paper lived a short life and certainly one periodical could not adequately represent the spectrum of diversity and experience among black Americans. Yet, briefly recalling one article from Freedom’s Journal within a history of how African Americans have imagined and formed museums raises important questions, some of which are discussed in AAIHS blog posts by Christopher Bonner, Kami Fletcher, Jessica Marie Johnson, Stephen G. Hall, and Jared Hardesty, about the definition of archives and the ways that African Americans have remembered, collected, framed, and developed their pasts.

In the May 18, 1827 edition, the paper copied an earlier article, “The surprising influence of prejudice,” from the Abolition Intelligencer and Missionary Magazine. The Abolition Intelligencer was begun by the Kentucky Abolition Society in 1822. The article called out the issue of black intelligence, “That the blacks are inferior to the whites in intellectual powers is constantly asserted with the utmost confidence as a fact by the advocates of the system.” These writers provided a clear critique, “But we do not hesitate to declare that the fact [of black intellectual inferiority] is gratuitously assumed, and that the history of mankind not only contradicts but abundantly refutes the assumption.”

The article then provided a listing of significant black historical figures, with the following introduction, “Now keeping in mind the many disadvantages under which for so many ages they [blacks] have laboured both at home and abroad, let us turn our attention to the character of a few individuals whom history represents as having by the energies of their own native geniuses, arisen to a degree of eminence, which not only rescues their race from the charge of original inferiority of mind, but also sheds a brilliancy and dignity over their own characters.” This fascinating list, a who’s who of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century figures found in many current edited volumes, included the following:

“Hannibal, an African,”…

“The son of Hannibal, above mentioned, a mulatto,”…

“Francis Williams, a black,”…

“Antony Williams Amo…born in Guinea,”…

“Job Ben Solomon, son of Mahometan king of Banda,”…

“James Eliza John Capitein…born in Africa,”…

“Ignatius Sancho…born on board a slave ship,”…

“Thomas Fuller, a native of Africa,”…

“Belinda…brought from Africa at the age of twelve,”…

“An African by the name of Maddocks… a Methodist preacher in England,”…

“Othello published at Baltimore,”…

“Caesar, a black of North Carolina,”…

“Ottobah Cugoano…born on the coast of Fantin in Africa,”…

“Gustavus Vasa, whose African name was Olando Equiano,”…

“Phillis Wheatley, born in Africa in 1753,”…

“Benjamin Banaker, a black of Maryland,”…

“The son of Nimbana, of Niambanna, ‘king of the region of Sierra Leone,”…

“James Derham, born in 1767, … formerly a slave in Philadelphia,”…

“Toussaint Louverture, general of St. Domingo,”…

and “Christophe, the late king of Hayti.”

Historians and literary scholars have recently rediscovered many of the figures in this rich list. Coming from the Kentucky Abolition Society, this catalog was probably compiled by whites and blacks, but nonetheless, it served to engrain these figures and their experiences within a Diasporic imaginary that constituted a kind of historical canon. Furthermore, it is significant that, just prior to 1830, as the first northern post-emancipation African American generation matured, they were just beginning to establish the sorts of institutional infrastructures that could support museum-like repositories. During this important era of remembering but also constructing black history, Freedom’s Journal helped to consolidate imaginings of pasts rooted in the North Atlantic world.

This list presents a great figures history, and it also illustrates tensions in the formation of North American black identities. Certainly, this roll supported the argument of black equality, but it also endorsed the idea of separate and equal races of people. Also, this record shows the emotional and cultural proximity of African Americans to their African origins, imagined and real. Not only did this list construct a “black” identity that consisted of Africans, mulattos, “Guinean[s]”, “Mahometan[s]”, and Christians, it also legitimated the diverse experiences of these people as being valid for inclusion into an archive of blackness. However, this list also demonstrates the growing cultural and historical distance between African Americans and the various communities of Africa. It is just this kind of problem that evolved in the formation of the black press and black museums.

America's_Black_Holocaust_Museum

Freedom’s Journal was certainly not a museum, but it’s publication informed and arose from the ideas and materials that, in turn, were absorbed and produced by black cultures. Various kinds of museums, libraries, historical societies, and galleries existed well before Freedom’s Journal, and the paper made mention of museums in the United States and abroad. However, in an age of developing black institutions where there were no black museums, this first black newspaper served a museum-like function. The intersections between the history of black newspapers and museums reveals interesting questions about the dynamic formation of black cultural identity in time and space and via print and material collection. Freedom’s Journal occupies a small yet important position in these developments because it sits at the origination of institutional practices that shaped and were shaped by African American imaginings of what was and was not useful or usable for both remembering and shaping their pasts.

 

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Chernoh Sesay Jr.

Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.

Comments on “Museums, Newspapers, and African American Archives

  • Denver has a Black Western History Museum that tells the story of black people in the Old West. How do you like that?

  • I hope to read more about the development of Black museums, because it is a form of public memory and the ritual of remembrance, and it is also a form of community development. We have so little museums named after Black women, and we should work to correct this absence in our local communities.

  • Fantastic and Congratulations!! I am Bill Doggett, a California archivist with a notable African American newspaper focused newspaper collection as well. Notable are the extremely rare and brittle FREEDMAN: The Colored Newspaper from Indianapolis 1890s-1914. I also have a number of Charleston 1804-05 newspapers that document the arrival of SLAVE SHIPS and “The Sale of Africans” right on the dock ship side. Please contact me regarding consigning and preserving them further. bdoggett55@gmail.com http://www.billdoggettproductions.com

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