• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass begins his newspaper

Few individuals would ever be upset with too much good news – least of all Frederick Douglass. Hot on the heels of learning about his newly purchased freedom, Douglass received even more good news - the friends who raised the money to buy his freedom also raised an additional $2,500, which they presented to him. The friends stated they hoped Frederick would use these funds to begin his own newspaper. To this request, he responded:


There was not, in the United States, a single newspaper regularly published by the colored people; though many attempts had been made to establish such papers; but that, up to that time, they had all failed.”


With great appreciation, Frederick placed the funds in his pocket after earmarking them for a printing press and booked passage back home.


Though good news is happily received, the euphoria which results is not always long-lived. The ship Douglass returned home on was the same steamer on which he had sailed to England two years earlier. The ride home, however, was totally different. Douglass was told in which part of the ship he must stay and was forbidden from joining the other passengers in the dining room.


As he sailed home, Douglass prepared for new challenges he would face. He knew full well many a battle over slavery still faced him. Add to that the shock he experienced when William Lloyd Garrison, a man he previously counted as a friend, now became one of his opponents. When Garrison learned of Douglass’s desire to begin his own newspaper, he referred to the endeavor as a waste of time, using Frederick’s lack of formal education to be the reason. Though he persevered, Douglass felt a deep level of disappointment as he listened to these negative remarks. His feelings were that lack of an education could be overcome with study. Wisdom, however, was gained through life’s experiences.


Frederick also believed a newspaper edited and published by a black American, especially a former slave, would help to hasten the end of slavery. After much thought, Douglass decided he needed a new location for his newspaper. Thus, he and Anna packed up and moved to Rochester, New York. Since no abolitionist newspaper was printed here, he would not be forced to compete with friends for readers.


This move was hard on Anna. She had developed a close-knit circle of friends during Frederick’s absence and it was hard to say goodbye to them. Add to that, the Douglass family’s arrival in Rochester was not warmly received. The prejudice the city held for free blacks was even stronger and more loudly proclaimed than where they left. Anna hung in there though and devoted her effort to the abolitionist cause even more than she had before.


Despite the difficulties their new surroundings presented, Anna and Frederick pushed on. Two miles from their home, centered in the middle of Rochester, was Douglass’s newspaper office. Douglass named the new paper, The North Star. Established on December 3, 1847, the paper’s name was chosen to symbolize the star the Underground Railroad used to guide numerous runaway slaves to a new life, freed from bondage.


When each new edition of The North Star was published, Frederick felt he was shooting fiery darts that wore away the veil which shrouded the Negro race. Eventually, The North Star became the antebellum era’s most influential antislavery paper, with the motto: “Right is of no sex – truth is of no color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brothers.”


Though finances continued to be a challenge, the newspaper itself was a success. Published once a week, The North Star soon boasted a readership of 4,000. Subscribers were spread across the United States, as well as England and the West Indies. During the 20 years Douglass published his paper, the name changed several times.


By one means or another, I succeeded so well as to keep my pecuniary engagements, and to keep my antislavery banner flying steadily during all the conflict from the autumn of 1847 until the union of the states was assured and emancipation was a fact accomplished.”


As the newspaper began, William Cooper Neel was named publisher, Frederick Douglass editor and Martin R. Delany his assistant. On publication day, the Douglass kids were put to work setting type, folding papers and playing go-fer. Anna’s job on these days was to nourish the hungry troops with a hearty stew and hot fresh biscuits.


In June 1851, The North Star merged with Liberty Party Paper of Syracuse, New York. Following the merger, the paper’s name changed to The Frederick Douglass Paper. This title remained until 1860.


Publishing a weekly newspaper apparently was not enough work for Douglass. He also devoted the next three years to publishing a monthly abolitionist magazine as well, named the Douglass’ Monthly. In 1870, Frederick assumed control of The New Era. This weekly publication, based in Washington D.C., served former slaves. Changing the name to The New National Era, Douglass published it until 1874.


During the first four years after Douglass began publishing The North Star, his support of William Lloyd Garrison and Garrison’s ideas continued. As time passed, however, new ideas began to develop. Becoming involved in the women’s rights movement and meeting John Brown had a strong influence on his previous opinions. Publishing the newspaper forced Douglass to read and study a large number of books and documents; all of which had their own influence on his understanding of situations and shaped his thoughts about them.


The one major document Douglass studied thoroughly was the U. S. Constitution. Garrison had previously convinced Douglass the Constitution was a pro-slavery document and because of that, Garrison discouraged men from voting during elections. After studying the Constitution, Douglass developed a totally different attitude towards what Garrison had told him.


Instead of being the pro-slavery document Garrison described, Douglass realized the Constitution did not support slavery at all. Consequently, due to the fact Douglass was a free citizen; he not only had a right to vote, but a duty to do so. His new understandings now caused Douglass to officially break away from Garrison and his followers in 1851. He began instead to establish new friendships with people whose thinking on slavery and other matters was more in keeping with his own.


After a time, a careful reconsideration of the subject convinced me that there was no necessity for dissolving the union between the northern and southern states, that to seek this dissolution was no part of my duty as an abolitionist, that to abstain from voting was no refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means for abolishing slavery, and that the Constitution of the United States not only contained no guarantees in favor of slavery, but on the contrary, was in its letter and spirit an antislavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence as the supreme law of the land.”

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