The contributions of African American women journalists
are a legacy of service to their ethnic heritage, gender, and
communities. Battling the double bind of racism and sexism, their history weaves through the black and mainstream
press, and the American women’s movement, fashioning an
indelible component of the American press.
By the early 1800s, America had established twenty-five
years of a free press and two hundred years of slavery. For
American citizens and freed African Americans, an industrialized newspaper industry became a family enterprise.
The first newspaper published by African Americans, Freedom’s Journal appeared in New York City in 1827. Founding fathers Samuel Eli Cornish and John Brown Russwurm
sought to address the social and economic concerns of free
blacks living in New York State, which abolished slavery
the same year. Published slave poet Phyllis Wheatley was
profiled along with other successful entrepreneurs, teachers, preachers, and writers. Antebellum African American
women journalists were most likely of privilege, and the
more visible educators, orators and writers. Their writing
concentrated on ending slavery and “uplifting the race”
through civic and moral education. They rallied the cause
of women’s rights
Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893) was born free in
Wilmington, Delaware. She was an educator and editor
with the North Star, published by former slave Frederick
Douglass. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850,
Cary moved to Canada and urged resettlement there in her
weekly Provincial Freeman. Cary belonged to the National
Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), founded in 1869.
White female journalists, known as “literary ladies,”
mostly wrote at home, in a decided moral voice on social,
church, and education issues. Some female writer-activists
debated abolition and women’s rights. Of note were Jane
Grey Swisshelm (1815–1884), owner of The St. Cloud Visitor; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) a friend of
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) worked as a
sewing instructor and, in 1854, began writing and lecturing
for the abolitionist press in Philadelphia. Harper joined the
American Women Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded
the same year as the more radical NWSA, which protested
the 1870 passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting African American men voting rights.
Gertrude Bustill Mossel (1855–1948) approached journalism with an evangelical spirit. During the 1880s, she
contributed to among others the Philadelphia Times, the
Philadelphia Echo, and the Independent. She was an editor
for the women’s columns of the New York Age, the Indianapolis World and the New York Freeman. In her book, The
Work of the Afro-American Woman (1894), Mossel noted
journalism was a viable career for educated women of color
traditionally employed as seamstresses and teachers.
Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction—events
from 1861 to 1877—increased opportunities for women in
nursing, teaching, and journalism. Nearly two dozen white
women abolitionists were Congressional reporters, although
they were denied seats in the press gallery.
Women formed their own professional clubs: Sorosis,
the first, in 1868; the Women’s National Press Association
in 1882; the Women’s Press Club of New York in 1889; and
in Boston, the Federation of Women’s Press Clubs in 1891.
These clubs excluded African American women journalists
well into the 1960s. The National Colored Press Association (NCPA) began in 1880.
In 1886, Journalist, the precursor to Editor & Publisher
magazine, estimated that five hundred women worked as
journalists in American newspapers. On January 26, 1889,
the trade publication devoted an entire issue to women
journalists. Lucy Wilmot Smith (1861–1888), who belonged
to the NCPA, wrote the article “Some Female Writers of
the Negro Race,” which featured ten journalists and cited
sixteen other contributors. As recorded in The Black Press
in the Middle West, 1865–1985 (1996), Smith’s article
appeared in the Indianapolis black weekly Freeman one
Three years later, I. Garland Penn’s The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (1891), listed about twenty black
female journalists in this benchmark tome. The “Princess
of the Press,” Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), figured
prominently in both Smith’s and Penn’s publications. Born
in Mississippi six months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, Wells-Barnett’s byline stamped newspapers from
the Midwest to the East Coast: First, at The Evening Star,
a journal for public school teachers; and others such as the
Kansas City Gate City Press, the Chattanooga Justice, the
Little Rock Sun, the Detroit Plaindealer, the Washington
Bee, and the New York Age. Wells-Barnett wrote for and
later purchased the Free Speech and Headlight, renaming
it the Memphis Free Speech. Here, she published a scathing series of anti-lynching editorials. After her offices were
destroyed by a mob, she fled to New York City and the
paper folded in 1892.
Wells-Barnett was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and
instrumental in starting its magazine, Crisis. In 1895, WellsBarnett became publisher and succeeded her now husband,
Ferdinand Barnett, as editor of Chicago’s first black newspaper, the Conservator. The Barnetts’s civic activism and stewardship during the Great Migration of blacks moving
from the south to the north, World War I, and the sanctioned separatism of the Jim Crow years helped to shift the
capital of the black press from New York to Chicago.
Penn described Victoria Mathews (1861–1907) as the
most well-liked-writer of her time. Self-educated, Matthews
was raised in New York by her mother, a fugitive slave from
Georgia. Matthews was a “sub reporter” for several New
York papers including the New York Times and the Herald
in the late 1800s. An active clubwoman, Matthews’s work
appeared in black newspapers such as the Boston Advocate,
Washington Bee, Richmond Planet, New York Globe, and
New York Enterprise.
Battling the Barriers of Race and Sex
Origins of the black women’s club movement date to an
1892 New York fundraiser coordinated by Matthews for
Wells-Barnett. Journalists from Boston, New York, and
Philadelphia attended, including activist Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954), the daughter of two former slaves from
Memphis who became wealthy realtors. In 1896, Terrell founded the National Association of Colored Women
(NACW) and served as its president until 1901. For seven
decades, Terrell used the press for civil rights activism. She
wrote for the NACW organ, The Woman’s Era; the AME
Church Review; the New York Age; and had a current events
column in the Norfolk Journal and Guide. Terrell’s articles
on the “race problem” were often refused, but during the
1930s and 1940s, the Boston Globe and the Washington
Post printed her letters to the editor. She advocated for
black soldiers, and in 1949 asked the Post to stop using the
word “Negro.” She authored in 1940 A Colored Woman in
A White World.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842–1924) and Josephine
Silone Yates (1859–1912) were regular contributors to the
Woman’s Era newspaper, which Ruffin founded. Yates
initiated the first black woman’s club in Kansas City, and
served as the second president of the NACW. Both were
proponents of an integrated women’s club movement.
In 1900, more than one thousand women convened for
the predominantly white General Federation of Women’s
Clubs meeting. Ruffin who was of mixed ancestry and a
member of several prestigious women’s clubs in New England was turned away. The black Wisconsin Weekly Advocate, a Booker T. Washington supporter, buried coverage of
The Twentieth-Century Legacy
By the turn of the century, close to 2,200 women, black and
white, were journalists. Their beats still considered women’s work; the majority of them staffed the women’s pages
and reported on the church, domestic concerns and society
life. A handful of white women such as Elizabeth “Nellie
Bly” Cochrane (1864–1922) and Ida Tarbell (1857–1944)
gained fame as investigative reporters examining social ills
and the business practices of the leading industries.
African American newspapers developed editorial policies reflecting the social philosophy of W.E.B. DuBois or
Booker T. Washington. Some African American women
journalists balanced career and personal life by marrying
men of like persistence.
Geraldine Pindell-Trotter (1872–1918) was the wife of
William Monroe Trotter (1872–1934), a Harvard graduate
and principle with W.E.B. Dubois in the Niagara Movement. Pindell-Trotter was associate editor for her husband’s
newspaper, the Boston Guardian (1901). She advocated for
women and children, and World War I African American
Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875–1935) was the widow of poet
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906). She edited the women’s
page of the Journal of the Lodge and AME Church Review.
Her column “From a Woman’s Point of View” began in 1926
in the Pittsburgh Courier; and “Little Excursions Week by
Week” was a staple of the black syndicated press.
Amy Jacques Garvey (1895–1973) was the wife of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), a Pan-African leader and president
of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
Jacques Garvey was a managing editor of UNIA’s the Negro
World, and the one-page column “Our Women and What
They Think.” Jacques Garvey chronicled a three-volume
history of the UNIA in the 1960s.
The West, Wars, Depression, and Expansion
Post-bellum America was a flurry of industrialization and
immigration to the nation’s urban centers. African Americans seeking escape from the virulent conditions of Jim
Crow, migrated north and west. Although women’s suffrage passed in 1920, race and gender discrimination did
not ease for African American women; the journalists
intensified their focus on racial, social and economic equality. Until the mid-twentieth century, an ethnically diverse
America on the cusp of global involvement saw opportunity
Delilah Beasley (1871–1934) began writing at age twelve
for the Cleveland Gazette and contributed regularly to the
Cincinnati Gazette. She moved to California in 1910; held
various occupations in the health field; and documented the
lives of African Americans in the West. Beasley argued
fervently against stereotypical images and descriptions of
African Americans. She collaborated with the NAACP,
protesting the film, The Birth of A Nation (1915). She wrote
an Oakland Tribune column, “Activities Among Negroes,”
and the book, The Negro Trailblazers of California (1919).
Editor and publisher of the oldest black paper in the
West, the California Eagle, Charlotta Bass (1874–1969)
confronted racial injustice in local and national government, and in her community during the Depression and
World War II. In 1925, she proved victorious in a libel suit
filed by the Ku Klux Klan; and in 1943 was the first African American to serve on a Los Angeles grand jury. In her
column, “On the Sidewalk,” Bass celebrated the accomplishments of African American women, and vehemently
recommended that African Americans boycott businesses
Lucile Bluford (1911–2003), the second black student to
study journalism at the University of Kansas, served the
Kansas City Call for seventy years. She became editor in
1955, and was part owner of the paper founded in 1919. It
grew to be one of the nation’s largest black weeklies. She
sued the University of Missouri in 1939 when denied admission to the graduate program. Her loss in the suit resulted
in the start of a program at Lincoln University in Jefferson
Another nonagenarian, Marvel Cooke (1903–2000)
entered journalism during the Harlem Renaissance as a
society editor for the Amsterdam News. There, in the 1930s,
she organized a strike of the employees for membership in
the Newspaper Guild. She later joined the staff of the liberal, all-white, daily Compass as the only woman and African American. Here, Cooke wrote a series on domestics by
going undercover as a day laborer.
Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906–1983) was the first African American woman to cover Congress, the White House,
and travel with a U.S. president. She was a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender, which was a member
of the Associated Negro Press (ANP). Dunnigan served as
ANP Washington chief for fourteen years, and broke the
color line of the Women’s National Press Club in 1955.
Era Bell Thompson (1905–1986) moved from North
Dakota to Chicago during the Great Depression. She
worked for Ebony magazine for three decades. Publisher
John Johnson sent her South and throughout the African
Often called the “first lady of the black press,” Chicago native Ethel Payne (1911–1991) was the first African
American female journalist to move from print to network
broadcasting. Known for her stealth reporting during the
civil rights movement, Payne worked as a librarian, and
then, the U.S. Army. The Chicago Defender published her
award-winning appeal for the adoption of World War II
African American and Japanese babies. Payne was the only
African American woman to witness signings of the Civil
Rights and Voting Rights acts of the mid 1960s. She was a
commentator for CBS radio and television; and covered the
Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.
Healing the Divide—A Second Wave
In 1968, the Kerner Commission, formed to investigate the
race riots of preceding years, identified economic disparity
a key factor in African Americans’ frustration. The report
noted that African Americans comprised less than 5 percent
of editorial postions in mainstream media; and most managers, numbering less than 1 percent, worked for the black
press. The report mandated that mainstream media—the
nation’s mirror—integrate the industry through increased
employment; access to academic training; and editorial
inclusion to address the concerns and needs of African
Dorothy Gilliam (1936– ), former city columnist for the
Washington Post entered mainstream media from the black
press during the civil rights movement. Gilliam covered the
integration of Little Rock’s Central High and was one of
two African Americans in the 1961 class of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Nancy Hicks Maynard (1946– ) became a reporter for
the New York Times in 1968 after leaving the New York
Post. She co-founded the Institute for Journalism Education with her husband Robert Maynard, former owner of the
A contemporary in television, Belva Davis (1933– ),
won five Emmys and was the first African American female
news anchor on the West Coast in 1967.
Pamela Johnson (1945– ), in 1981, became the first female
African American publisher of a white-owned newspaper,
the Ithaca Journal, in New York State. A decade earlier,
Johnson was the first African American woman appointed
to the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where she
earned her doctorate.
According to Media Report to Women (December 2005),
37.5 percent of women work in daily newsrooms and 17.2
percent are minority women, which is not exclusive to African American women. Men still hold the majority of managerial positions, while women (of all backgrounds) remain
the majority of college journalism students since 1977.
Increased opportunity in employment, diversity in
education, and a passing of the baton has had its rewards.
Ten years after being banned from the San Diego Padres
locker room, Claire Smith (1953– ) became in 1994, the
first woman to head the New York chapter of the Baseball
Writers Association of America. Gwen Ifill (1955– ), who
wrote for the Boston Herald American, the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Washington Post, and the New York Times,
succeeded pioneer African American journalist Charlayne
Hunter-Gualt (1942– ) as a correspondent for the PBS program The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Ifill, in 2004, was
the first African American woman to moderate a vice-presidential debate.
African American women awarded an individual Pulitzer Prize in the 1990s included Isabel Wilkerson (1960– )
in 1994 and Margo Jefferson in 1995, both of the New York
Times; and E.R. Shipp (1955– ) of the New York Daily News,
in 1996. In 2006, Robin Givhan (1964– ) of the Washington
Post won for criticism of fashion. She was the first fashion
writer to be nominated, and win.
Beasley, H. Maurine, and Sheila J. Gibbons. Taking their Place: A
Documentary History of Women and Journalism. Washington, D.C.: American University Press, 1993.
Broussard, Jinx Coleman. Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: Four
Pioneering Black Women Journalists. New York & London:
Cairns, Kathleen A. Front-Page Women Journalists, 1920–1950.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
Mills, Kay. A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the
Front Page. New York, Columbia University Press, 1990.
Pride, S. Armistead, and Clint C. Wilson II. A History of the Black
Press. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.
Salem, Dorothy C., ed. African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland, 1993.