How did slaves and later free African Americans get their news?

It was not easy for the African slaves to get news. Few were literate and state laws in most Southern states from the 1830s on made it a crime to teach slaves to read. On the eve of the Civil War, literacy among black Americans was about 5 to 10%. But that changed with emancipation. Schools sprang up and literacy rose to 30% by 1880, and 77% by 1920. Not only elementary schools but more than eighty black colleges began in the two decades after the Civil War. This rapid growth of education was possible because free Negroes in the South— about 260,000 in 1860—managed to establish instruction, often through their churches. Some states—Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina—never banned schools for free Negroes. After emancipation, there was a corps of literate African Americans equipped to help the former slaves.

After World War I, the "Great Migration" of blacks from South to North proceeded rapidly. It was driven by a depressed agricultural economy as well as by intensified racial tension, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It was also encouraged by the circulation in the South of African American newspapers from the North. This included from 1905 the Chicago Defender (a weekly until it became a daily in 1956, returning to weekly publication in 2003), which "except for the Bible, was probably the most influential publication in Afro-America," as historian James Danky writes. The Defender took an aggressively antiracist stance. It circulated widely in the South. It posted notices of job opportunities in the North, and it organized clubs to help the migrants make their transition to urban life. It mixed sensational coverage of corruption and vice along with strong editorials against segregation and lynching and coverage of other serious political fare.

Another prominent African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier (1907-1966), reached at its height a circulation of 350,000. The Courier promoted the "Double V" campaign during World War II, urging victory in the war against Germany and Japan and, equally, victory at home against racial discrimination.

The black press grew for a few years after the war but in the 1950s faltered badly. Dailies became weeklies, weeklies disappeared, and by the end of the 1960s a once thriving part of American journalism had become a ghost of itself. It did not secure the kind of advertising base that sustained the mainstream press. In many African American homes, the black newspaper was a "second" paper, and advertisers could still reach black Americans in the general circulation newspapers, while black businesses with local or neighborhood clientele were often not inspired to support the black press. As civil rights became increasingly a top news story in the mid-1950s and after, even in the mainstream press that had long neglected the black community or treated it disparagingly, it became more possible for readers to follow this important news in the general media and for advertisers to reach African Americans without buying space in African American papers.

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