This post is actually an harmonic convergence — in part necessitated by a technology glitch that curtailed writing, more important inspired by these facts: 1) African American History Month ended before this post got written; 2) we are beginning Women’ History Month, and 3) the demonization of the American press calls for positive resistance, including some real facts about some of the nation’s most powerful journalists.
The disrespectful treatment of April Ryan actually propelled this quest to learn more about the role that African American women journalists have played in speaking truth to power. What I have found is a wealth of strong women whose names are little known and whose stories I am eager to learn and share through Women’s History Month posts.
Great as she was, challenged to face a digital age in which social media are the information source of choice, Gwen Ifill built on the strength of her forebears. These are but a few of the African American women who have paved a road that Ifill, April Ryan, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Joy Reid and countless others are challenged to walk in the digital age.
What I have learned inspires confidence in the strength of journalists supported by the prevailing power of the First Amendment and the essential role of this nation’s free press. I’ve also learned that women have played an unheralded role as supporters of all Americans’ right to know.
Following are just some of the African American women journalists about whom I’m learning. They are posted in no particular order — except for the first entry who gets dibs because she’s a Minnesota native.
Marvel Cooke (1903-2000) was born in Mankato! Her family eventually moved to Prospect Park where they were the first African American neighbors in this Minneapolis community. She was the first African American woman to work at a mainstream newspaper. In the 1930’s she helped to create The Newspaper Guild, a labor group that actually conducted a lengthy strike at the Amsterdam News. Cooke described her experiences working as a domestic in white homes under the title, I was a slave. There is a helpful entry about Marvel Cooke on MNOpedia http://www.mnopedia.org/person/cooke-marvel-jackson-1901-2000 (note: I don’t understand the inconsistency of dates, but I’m working on it…)
Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893) was a lawyer, suffragist and journalist whose family fled to Canada after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. There she edited a Canadian newspaper, the Provincial Freeman for Black refugees who fled to Canada. As an advocate for suffrage for African American women Cary founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in DC in 1888 a forebear of the women’s club/sorority movement. As the first woman student at Howard University Law School she was not permitted to graduate because DC did not admit women to the bar; she returned to Howard a decade later to receive her law degree at age 60.
Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879) was a speaker/preacher before she was a journalist. An ardent supporter of African-American exceptionalism, always with religious theme, Stewart befriended William Lloyd Garrison, famous leader of the anti-slavery movement. Garrison published several of her “Meditations” and speeches in The Liberator, the anti-slavery journal to which Stewart became a regular contributor. One indication of Stewart’s legacy is the fact that the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church USA commemorates her contributions, along with those of William Lloyd Garrison, every year on December 17.
Delilah Leontium Beasley (1871-1934) was a native of Cincinnati, Ohio. She was a newspaper columnist for the Oakland Tribune. Beasley was the first African American women to be published regularly in a major metro newspaper. Beasley told the story of early California’s African American leaders in The Negro Trail-Blazers of California, published in 1919.
Charlotte Bass (1874-1969) was the first African American women to own and operate a newspaper in the US. Incidentally Bass was the first African American women to be nominated for Vice President of this country. She was born on Valentine’s Day in 1874 and died at age 95 in 1969. It is likely that she was the first African American woman to own and operate a newspaper, the California Eagle, from 1912 until 1951. In 1952 she was nominated for VP as a candidate of the Progressive Party.
Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983) was the first African American woman correspondent to receive White House credentials and the first Black female member of the Senate and House of Representative galleries. Her story is told in her autobiography, Alice A. Dunnigan: A Black Woman’s Experience.
Ethel L. Payne,(1911-1991) “combined a passionate concern for the rights of Black people in all parts of the world with a talent for investigative reporting and writing.” Granddaughter of a Pullman Porter Payne’s early life in Chicago was fraught with financial concerns and racial discrimination. In time she began writing for the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper published as an expose of immoral and illegal practices within the U.S. military. In time Payne traveled the world, reporting on African American troops, particularly in Vietnam. She also worked for CBS as both a radio and TV commentator.
My hope is to learn and share more about these and other Black women journalists during Women’s History Month. I would be grateful for readers’ suggestions of other women whose stories should be must be recorded and shared.