• Last updated on November 10, 2022

“This journal as an appropriate engine, may exert a powerful agency . . . It will bring to light many hidden things, which must be revealed and repented of, or this nation must perish.”

Summary Overview

Arguably the most significant African American publication of the nineteenth century, the Colored American was a weekly newspaper published in New York City that sought to educate and unify the free black community in the northern United States. Through articles such as “Why We Should Have a Paper,” its chief owner and editor, Charles Bennett Ray, strived to highlight “prejudice more wicked and fatal than even slavery itself” and to emphasize the role of a free black press in challenging the overall oppression of people of color. In essence, the Colored American offered a necessary alternative to the antebellum newspapers and fiction of the South, noted for their proslavery platform and consistent reproach of the Negro race, as it was then called. In contrast, the Colored American, by demanding the abolition of slavery, aimed at elevating the oppressed African American community and calling attention to the urgency of social and political change in the handling of the American slave. Its articles brought renewed attention to the plight of the slave and exerted what it called “a powerful agency” in commanding the attention of black readers who had been long silent in the political debate. As a result, the Colored American helped the free black community discover a public voice, opening the door for a much stronger and politically active community.

Defining Moment

Following the industrialization of textile production and the 1793 invention of the cotton gin, which dramatically increased the speed of cotton processing, the demand for slave labor increased in the South as cotton production expanded. A perennially controversial subject, slavery and the related topic of states’ rights became the central topic of US political debate in the nineteenth century, as slave states fought to legalize the spread of slavery into the western territories where cotton planters hoped to expand their operations, and antislavery forces sought to halt the spread of the “peculiar institution.” The staunchest opponents of slavery were the Northern abolitionists, who wanted the practice banned outright on a national level; like many well-defined political factions, they tried to spread their message through newspapers and other abolitionist literature.

Seeking to break through the pervasive ignorance of the American people regarding the plight of the slave, the Colored American, initially the Weekly Advocate, highlighted the “many hidden things, which must be revealed and repented of” for the improvement and preservation of American liberty. The paper, primarily focused on the institution of slavery still dominant in the American South, took an abolitionist stance, calling for increased activism and expression within the black community. Ray recognized that before the Colored American could anticipate the sympathy and support of the American people at large, he needed to find his own voice and speak out against the enslavement of his people.

Though the paper preceded some major legislative and judicial setbacks for the antislavery cause in the 1950s, including the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Colored American nonetheless ran headlong into several obstacles at the time. Although it was spread among free black communities across the North, the paper had limited influence throughout the South, where abolitionists were often punished with death and where proslavery literature predominated. A further obstacle was the rampant illiteracy of American slaves, whose masters understood that education was counterproductive to keeping slaves in their place.

Regardless, the Colored American sought to educate the masses of free and enslaved African Americans and to unify the “body of our oppressed people,” using its articles as a podium to uplift the black community and champion the cause of the slave. Sending free issues to newspapers throughout the country, Cornish and Ray ultimately hoped their articles would be excerpted and reach a much wider audience on a more national stage. Though its influence cannot be measured directly, the Colored American was a much-needed voice in the political and social landscape of the United States, spreading antislavery sentiment while contributing to an already heated and controversial debate: that surrounding the domestic slave trade and its future in the American South. Through its articles and its illustrations, the paper thus played an integral role in disclosing the plight of the slaves, taking a first crucial step in publishing the wrongs they experienced and paving the way for future conversations about race and the American experience.

Author Biography

Born a free African American on December 25, 1807, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, Charles Bennett Ray was a minister by education, trained in theology first at Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, and then, briefly, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, before being forced to leave because of his race. In 1832 he moved to New York City, became a Methodist (and later Congregational) minister, and joined the antislavery movement, where he did his most renowned work. Eventually procuring a position as sole editor of the Colored American from 1839 to its final publication in 1841, Ray established himself as one of the more prominent figures in advancing the African American cause, guiding many slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad while securing financial support for the cause from wealthy white abolitionists. During his time with the paper, Ray was also a passionate public speaker, always promoting the cause of abolition while sharing his perspectives on the gross mistreatment of the slave. In doing so, he helped to legitimize the Negro fight for freedom and liberty. He was married to Charlotte Augusta Burroughs, with whom he had seven children, and died in New York on August 15, 1886.

Samuel Eli Cornish, born free in Delaware in 1795, emerged from similar roots. Pastoring at the first black Presbyterian Church in New York City before developing his interests in the press, Cornish is most noted for his role in establishing the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827 and then the Colored American in 1837, both involved in promoting the antislavery cause. Until his death in 1858, Cornish was actively involved in combating the institution of slavery, first by disseminating antislavery sentiments in his newspapers and then as a founding member of the New York Anti-Slavery Society, primarily interested in spreading antislavery propaganda as a means of creating an environment for social change. In 1839, Cornish relinquished his role at the Colored American to pursue other opportunities in the abolitionist movement, but through his actions he opened a gateway for discussions about race, using the press—so sacred to the American way—as an effective engine to help free the slave.

Despite their short-lived careers with the Colored American, Ray and Cornish were both instrumental in providing the African American perspective in the press. While slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) had already brought attention to the evils of the slave trade and slavery, newspapers were able to be immediately responsive to current events. Cornish and Ray therefore left an indelible mark on the history and direction of the black press, forever linking black journalists with the social and cultural movements that affected black America, as well as identifying the responsibility of black writers for helping to preserve the liberties they fought so hard to obtain. Though generally overlooked in the abolitionist tradition, the Colored American and its authors, editors, and publishers are important as some of the first voices of change, leaving behind a legacy in four short years that should not be forgotten.

Document Analysis

From its inception as the Weekly Advocate, the Colored American newspaper made its overarching purpose relatively clear: “Established for, and Devoted to the Moral, Mental, and Political Improvement of the People of Color.” Thus concerned with uplifting a race oppressed by the ills of slavery and discrimination, the newspaper offered a voice of change to the black community, condemning the cruel and inhuman trade in human beings and shedding light on the plight of the American slave. As an African American newspaper, the Colored American brought news to free black communities through the lens of their own experience. As a result, the Colored American participated in the same tradition as other black papers of its time; from Freedom’s Journal to the North Star to the Colored American, these papers were at the forefront of advocating for social change, inspiring readers of color to fight for freedom and not settle for a second-class status in life.

The Goals of the <i>Colored American</i>

In its arguably most significant and influential editorial, “Why We Should Have a Paper,” the newspaper laid forth what might be called a “colored manifesto,” emphasizing key social and political issues, from the clear stranglehold of slavery in the United States to the epic moral struggle that awaited African Americans in the years to come. Citing the historical examples of the 1821 Greek Revolution, which freed Greece from Ottoman rule, and the 1830 Polish revolt against Russia, the Colored American asserted that the African American fight for freedom was a basic human struggle, not unique to Africans forced into slavery and stripped of their ancestral ties. Here Greece and Poland stood as a model for black society, for they were not silent in the face of repression: “They had published their wrongs, asserted their rights and sued for freedom at the hands of their oppressors”—the same path that the Colored American intended to take in the coming weeks and months.

In the opening tenet of this article, the Colored American identified the role of the free black press in stirring “our afflicted population in the free states,” reinvigorating the demoralized masses. The article claimed that the multitudes of black people, free or enslaved, had been beaten and battered for so long by the harsh whip of prejudice and slavery that they needed an organ of change like a vocal black paper “to call all their energies into action” and to set in motion those wheels of change. For its founders, the Colored American was developed to provide readers with the tools for their salvation—the knowledge of religion and the lessons of industry necessary to break those already rusted chains.

According to the article, without the indispensable instrument of sociocultural revolution, enslaved colored people might never garner the sympathy of the larger American public, particularly those whose perceptions of slavery were tainted by texts like John Pendleton Kennedy’s 1832 novel Swallow Barn, which promoted the stereotype of the contented slave. Therefore, free black communities must announce the ills of slavery from their rooftops and prove their race human, “worthy to be free-men and to have our grievances redressed.” Equally important, however, the black community needed to be united; in the end, no one else could advance the cause of this enslaved race better than the multitudes of colored people themselves. In order to take that necessary step to action, the black community needed renewed unity and renewed spirit for the long, hard task ahead.

“Why We Should Have a Paper” emphasized the urgency of the social and political situation surrounding the treatment (or mistreatment) of blacks. As the editors avowed, this paper “will bring light to many hidden things, which must be revealed and repented of, or this nation must perish.” The United States, after all, was built upon notions of freedom and equality, placed at the forefront of democracy and human rights. In restricting the liberties of its own people, the very foundation of American life was called into question, for Ray, Cornish, and their colleagues subscribed to the notion that an affront to liberty in one place is an affront to liberty everywhere, not just felt in the shacks where the slave children lay or the auction block where families were torn apart. The very fibers of American democracy and freedom were threatened by the institution of slavery, the Colored American presciently noted.

The <i>Colored American’s</i> Assertion of a National Identity

During its first year in publication, the Colored American thus produced several articles championing the cause of the American slave. “Title of This Journal,” published in March 1837, in the first edition following the name change from the Weekly Advocate, is one of the most influential articles published in the paper’s short history. Advocating a new image for the black community, “one which is above reproach,” the article sought to redefine how the black masses perceived themselves, countering the prevalent lowly Negro or savage African stereotypes. For Ray and Cornish, the Colored American was a newspaper that embodied as well as promoted social change, in this case by encouraging the ex-slave to see himself not as the inferior and dehumanized creature presented in much of prejudiced American society, but rather as “colored Americans” with equal claim to an American identity.

Benjamin Fagan posits that such declarations are confirmation of the Colored American’s attempt to assert a national identity for African Americans. Directly opposing those who deny the African American claim to American nationality, “Title of This Journal” attempted to carry the flag of the American of color, calling attention to the intrinsic right of the African American community to see themselves not only as black but as an integral component of American heritage and history. As Fagan acknowledged, this article, like the others to follow until the paper’s cessation in 1841, “would attempt to convince its black readers to claim for themselves a national membership in an America that did at times equate to the United States” (100). In doing so, Cornish and Ray helped bring about a fundamental change in the mindset of the black community, able to see itself as belonging to American society at large, instead of the marginalized sector of servants, laborers, and slaves.

In addition, the editors of the Colored American “argued that nationality had to be demonstrated through participation in republican institutions” such as the vote (Fagan 101). Even though the vast majority of African Americans were still enslaved and could not vote, the position of the Colored American in later issues was that those free black communities in New York should pave the way, participating in the electoral process as a way of staking their claim to American cultural rights. From this first vision, the paper set in motion a historic trend, that of African Americans placing their hope in the democratic process. Though not fully realized until decades later when freed slaves were finally given the right to vote, this was one of the lasting ideals so vital to the change advocated by Cornish and Ray.

Educating and Uplifting the Race

This same message was also prevalent in the article “The Importance of Our Paper,” published in February 1838 as a reminder to the populations of black readers about the relevance of the black press in the advancement of African American liberties and rights. For Cornish and Ray, the newspaper was a venue for the pooling of knowledge, where “the greater experience and more mature judgment” of the black community could serve as the foundation for uplifting the black race. In this sense, the moral struggle that the writers alluded to was not an individual struggle. Rather, the struggle was a larger community struggle, calling upon each man, woman, and child to engage in the elevation and improvement of the black race in order to overcome their oppressed condition. The Colored American, like Frederick Douglass’s North Star newspaper that came after it, championed the way for this uplift mentality to pervade black communities and abolitionist groups across the United States.

This article, also laden with biblical allusion, from the body of Christ to “the WISDOM of the serpent, and the PURITY of the dove,” therefore encouraged the African American people to develop the craftiness and wholesome disposition necessary to challenge their condition. These allusions—a reflection of the editors’ theological training—proved especially important in challenging interpretations of the Christian religious tradition that served to excuse and justify slavery. Here the article called the Colored American a “mighty engine,” a driving force of sociopolitical change, citing black expression as the much-needed foundation to correct the ills of slavery and the miseducation of the American people that had enabled slavery to become so widespread.

Part of that education the Colored American ultimately sought to promote was teaching the larger black public to avoid the pitfalls of complacency and never become content with their inferior lot. For example, in an article entitled “A Mistaken Notion,” published in April 1837, the paper challenged the suggestion that the African American community should ever be content with “inferior subserviency.” Here the editors argued that Americans of color should instead be taught overwhelming respect for themselves, and shown the path of moral and social progression so that one day they might “ascend the pinnacle of earthly glory, that would emphatically be [their] place.” From this approach, the Colored American and its presentation of antislavery ideals showed African Americans an alternative to their prescribed inferiority.

Through the various perspectives it expressed, the Colored American not only confronted head-on the social issues of its time: it also provided a record of antislavery thought integral to the development of an African American race psychology. By accumulating their thoughts on a wide variety of issues, from abolition to the evils of slavery, the editors and contributors to the Colored American drafted a kind of declaration of the freedoms and rights common to all humankind. These authors, in essence, rebelled against the prevailing opinions of the day, in the end refusing to be second-class citizens or to accept their inferior state. For these reasons, the Colored American is among the defining documents of American history, bringing “to light many hidden things” in the not-so-distant past—things that needed to be “revealed and repented of,” so this nation would not perish along its destructive and corruptive path.

Essential Themes

Perhaps the most important belief revealed throughout the Colored American’s history is the importance of sustaining and promoting a free black press. In a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1823, Thomas Jefferson even acknowledged that “the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.” This statement did not exclude the value central to black newspapers such as the North Star or the Colored American, which challenged the institution of slavery and the prevailing prejudices directed toward black people across the United States. Articles such as “The Importance of Our Paper” proved integral to advancing the abolitionist platform and to stirring the people to action against the pervasive mistreatment of African Americans. The Colored American, embodying those ideals that Jefferson set into writing just a decade or two earlier, therefore sought to become that national shield in the hands of the former slave.

Like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and other critical abolitionist texts, the Colored American also challenged the prevailing religious systems of the South, noting that the prejudice and discrimination of slavery pervaded the Christian church there as well. Here the editors demanded that “the nation repent and render to every man that which is just and equal,” confronting the misuse of biblical doctrine as justification for the enslavement of the Negro race. As a result, the Colored American condemned the proslavery beliefs perpetuated in texts such as “The Negro Christianized” (1706) by the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather, which, while identifying African souls as every bit as worthy of saving as European ones, utilized biblical arguments to defend African Americans’ enslaved condition.

In addition to advancing the free black press as a necessary forum for conversations about race and the multitude of related sociopolitical issues in the United States, the Colored American also attempted to redefine the American understanding of African Americans, who have been “written about, preached to, and prayed for, as Negroes, Africans, and blacks, all of which have been stereotyped, as names of reproach,” particularly in the Southern states. Thus, in adopting the title Colored American, Ray and Cornish sought to promote a new image of the black community as both colored and American, to combat the reproach of proslavery platforms that attempted to deny black people their humanity and nationality. The term “colored Americans,” therefore, at the time, represented a cultural pluralism key to the overall African American experience, ultimately unwilling to sacrifice either their ethnic background or their sense of national belonging.

Later, during the Harlem Renaissance of the early 1900s, this notion of cultural pluralism became foundational in the philosophy of Alain Locke, editor of The New Negro, a trailblazing anthology of African American literature in various genres that again sought to redefine how the black community was perceived. The Colored American thus proved influential in helping to establish a legacy in the advancement of the African American people. By providing a direction for black expression, the paper called the masses of African Americans to action to face the moral as well as social ills of their day.

  • Fagan, Benjamin. “‘Americans as They Really Are’: The Colored American and the Illustration of National Identity.” American Periodicals 21.2 (2011): 97–119. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 16 Sept. 2012.
  • González, Juan, and Joseph Torres. News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. London: Verso, 2011. Print.
  • “History of African-American Newspapers.” Virginia.edu. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.
  • Rummel, Jack, and G. S. Prentzas. “Cornish, Samuel Eli.” African-American Social Leaders and Activists. New York: Facts on File, 2003. Print.
  • Vogel, Todd. The Black Press: New Literary and Historical Essays. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2001. Print.
  • Work, M. N. “The Life of Charles B. Ray.” Journal of Negro History 4.4 (1919): 361–71. JSTOR. Web. 16 Sept. 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Detweiler, Fredrick G. The Negro Press in the United States. College Park: McGrath, 1968. Print.
  • Hutton, Frankie. The Early Black Press in America, 1827–1860. Westport: Greenwood, 1993. Print.
  • Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. “The Negro Conservative: Samuel Eli Cornish.” Bound with Them in Chains: A Biographical History of the Antislavery Movement. Westport: Greenwood, 1972. Print.
  • Pride, Armistead S., and Clint C. Wilson II. A History of the Black Press. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1997. Print.
  • Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford UP, 1969. Print.
  • Salzman, Jack, David Smith, and Cornel West, eds. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. New York: Macmillan, 1996. Print.

Categories: History