Separate and Unequal: African American Magazines
Some of the most successful African American political figures of the twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois and A. Phillip Randolph, used their magazine editorships as a platform for reform. Periodicals have been at the forefront of defining African American cultural identity, notably including Johnson Publication’s phenomenally successful Ebony and Jet.
Volume 1, number 1, February 1882. Philadelphia: Our Continent Publishing Company.
A handful of white men were instrumental in advancing the rights of Blacks in the Jim Crow era, and lawyer Albion W. Tourgée was among the most vocal. In 1882, his attempt to start a major literary magazine, Our Continent, met with financial disaster. He later became the lead attorney representing the plaintiff in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case, calling for a “color-blind” solution to overturn the Louisiana law that mandated segregated railroad trains.
The Outlook: A Family Paper.
Volume 52, number 14, September 28, 1895. New York: The Outlook Company.
On September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington gave a speech in Atlanta, often referred to as the “Atlanta Compromise.” It was the first by an African American to a racially-mixed audience in the South, in which he advocated a measured accommodation with whites as opposed to a more militant advocacy for full political rights. This issue of The Outlook made Washington the first African American to be featured on the cover of a national magazine.
The Symposium: A Monthly Literary Magazine.
Volume 1, number 1, October 1896. Northampton, Mass.: George Washington Cable.
George Washington Cable was a native of Louisiana who had fought with the Confederate Army. After the war, he began writing stories with themes of racial injustice in Scribner’s Monthly. The consequent hostility from his New Orleans neighbors forced his relocation to Massachusetts, where he went on to publish a monthly literary magazine, The Symposium, for three issues in 1896. The cover illustration is by Will Bradley.
Volume 80, number 478, August 1897. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company.
During a fellowship at the University of Berlin, W.E.B. Du Bois noted that “With me were white folk – who did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human” and returned to America to become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. His 1897 psychological profile of racism “Strivings of the Negro People” was the first essay by a Black man published in a “mainstream” American magazine.
The National Capital Searchlight: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Education Among Colored People.
Volume 1, number 1, February 1901. Washington, D.C.: [publisher not identified].
National Capital Searchlight appeared in Washington in 1901. African American education was de jure segregated in the South from the initiation of Jim Crow laws after Reconstruction until Brown v. Board Of Ed. Topeka Kansas in 1954. De facto segregation was much more prevalent in the North until the Civil Rights laws of 1965, and, regretfully, remains to the present day.
Volume 3, number 1, November 1906. Chicago: The Voice Publishing Company.
Voice of the Negro was published between 1904 and 1907 by clergyman John Bowen and journalist Jesse Max Barber, one of the founders of the radical Niagara Movement in 1905. It began publication in Atlanta but, after violent race riots there, was forced to move to Chicago in 1906. This is the first issue after its relocation. The Voice, with Colored American, became the most widely circulated Black magazines of their time.
The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line.
Volume 1, number 2, February 1907. Washington, D.C.: W. E. B. Du Bois, F. Murray, and L. Hershaw.
In 1905, Du Bois was one of the founders of the Niagara movement, formed to oppose the Atlanta Compromise. His first attempt at a magazine, Moon Illustrated Weekly, failed after thirty-four issues. His second, Horizon, became the monthly organ of the movement, designed to appeal to what he labeled the elite “talented tenth” of the Negro community. This is the earliest issue extant.
The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races.
Volume 18, number 6, October 1919. New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
With the financial backing and of the N.A.A.C.P. behind him, W.E.B. Du Bois used The Crisis to supplant Booker T. Washington as the leading spokesman for the Black community. Du Bois was replaced as editor by the highly respected but less controversial Roy Wilkins in 1934. Soon after this issue, Dubois started The Brownie’s Book. the first magazine designed for African American children.
Fire!!: A Quarterly Devoted to Younger Negro Artists.
Volume 1, number 1, November 1926. New York: The Fire!! Press.
Fire!! was an important reflection of the spirit and creativity of the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by Wallace Thurman and designed by Aaron Douglas, it is filled with contributions of the self-proclaimed “niggerati,” including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen. This is one three known copies and is signed by the editor and most of the literary and artistic contributors.
Timely Digest: Current Events in Review.
Volume 1, number 1, April 1931. Minneapolis: Timely Digest Publishing Co.
The first African American news magazine was a monthly reminiscent of Time in format. Edited by Cecil E. Neman, the cover features the controversial multi-talented athlete, baritone, actor, and political activist, Paul Robeson.
The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races.
Volume 44, number 11, whole number 232, November 1937. New York: Crisis Publishing Company, Inc.
A. Phillip Randolph was the most politically effective African American in America in the twentieth century. He began as editor of The Messenger, begun in November 1917 as Hotel Messenger, which billed itself as “the only radical Negro Magazine in America,” providing unflinching support of socialism and the “New Negro” brand of radical journalism. In 1925, he organized the first predominantly African-American labor union, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races.
Volume 49, whole number 376, April 1942. New York: Crisis Publishing Company, Inc.
The image of a Black woman worker was made possible by A. Phillip Randolph’s agitation against unfair labor practices and a threat of a march on Washington led President Roosevelt in 1941 to issue Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in the defense industries during World War II. Randolph finally got his march in 1963, which provided the venue for Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life.
Volume 20, number 4, April 1942. New York: National Urban League.
Opportunity, a capable philosophical ally of The Crisis, was founded in 1923 as the official organ of the National Urban League. Together, they were the two most influential African American periodicals of the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s, Opportunity showcased the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Negro Quarterly: A Review of Negro Life and Culture.
Volume 1, number 1, Spring 1942. New York: Negro Publication Society of America.
A wartime quarterly of African American thought and opinion edited by Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, and political activist Angelo Herndon. Contributors include Langston Hughes. Ellison advocated for Negro support of American and Allied principles during World War II while still remaining vigilant against white supremacy. This issue is signed by Ellison and Herndon.
Negro Digest: A Magazine of Negro Comment.
Volume 1, numbers 1–12, November 1942–October 1943. Chicago: Negro Digest Publishing Co.
In 1942, John Harold Johnson borrowed $500 to start Negro Digest with the intention of creating the Black community’s alternative to Reader’s Digest, but with an important difference: it “spoke to an audience that was angry, disillusioned and disappointed. You couldn’t digest the world without digesting the frustration and anger.” Circulation increased dramatically after a contribution by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a series entitled “If I Were a Negro.”
Volume 1, number 1, November 1945. Chicago: Negro Digest Publishing Co.
Ebony declared at its outset, it “will try to mirror positive every day achievements from Harlem to Hollywood, but when we talk about race as the number one problem of America, we’ll talk turkey.” An initial print run of 25,000 copies sold out immediately and the magazine soon became the flagship of the Johnson Publishing Empire. By 1947, circulation had reached 325,000.
Volume 6, number 3, June 1948. Washington, D.C.: Pulse Publishing Company.
A general interest monthly published in the nineteen forties. The June 1948 issue featured Thurgood Marshall, the driving force behind Brown v. Board of Education, the lawsuit that functionally overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. Other cover images featured diplomat Ralph Bunche and Jackie Robinson.
Jet: The Weekly Negro News Magazine.
Volume 1, number 1, November 1, 1951. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co.
John H. Johnson’s fourth magazine, which appeared on November 1, 1951, was billed as “The Weekly Negro News Magazine.” Well-illustrated with photographs, its digest-sized format was inexpensive enough to sustain a weekly circulation. Jet gained national prominence in 1955 with graphic coverage of the murder of Emmett Till and continued to grow with extensive coverage of the Civil Rights movement.
Volume 1, number 1, November 1953. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co.
Volume 1, number 1, January 1954. New York: SEPIA Publications, Inc.
Jet’s success inspired a genre of digest-sized imitators, including Brown, Our Life and Hue, a monthly also published by Johnson. By 1982, Johnson had parlayed his original investment into a publishing empire that made him the first African American to appear on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans.
Volume 1, number 1, January 1963. New York: World Mutual Exchange, Inc.
A monthly published by R. Algeon Sutton. This pilot issue of 5,000 copies includes cross-section of the Harlem social and entertainment scene of the early 1960s. The cover features iconic trumpet player Miles Davis. It is signed and inscribed by actress Abby Lincoln, the author of the feature article entitled: “The Unkindest Cut of All: Black Women - Imitation or Original?” Possibly a unique survival.
Volume 1, number 1, May 1970. New York: The Hollingsworth Group.
Backed by a million dollars of advance funding, Essence was designed to appeal to the eighteen-to thirty-four-year-old “inquisitive, acquisitive black woman” and was a success with readers and advertisers from the start. The New York Times reported five years later that Essence was “one of the few publications in this country showing advertising page gains over last year.”