The Life of John Brown Russwurm, Part III
By Andy O’Brien
In 1827, the year after John Brown Russwurm graduated from Bowdoin College, he and Samuel Cornish founded the New York-based Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned newspaper in the United States. Their aim was “to achieve the elevation of free blacks and to express … sympathy for … brethren still in the iron fetters of bondage.” Russwurm and Cornish also saw their venture as an organizing tool to bring the Black community across the nation together and promote literacy, self-improvement and Black empowerment.
“Union is every thing,” wrote Russwurm, “and could our brethren but be united in their efforts, we might effect almost any thing.”
At its peak, Freedom’s Journal had subscribers in 11 states, the District of Columbia, Haiti, Europe and Canada. It had a pan-African perspective, often including news items from Africa and bits of the history of ancient African civilizations. Russwurm strove to prove African Americans deserved dignity and equality by showing their connection to the great African civilizations of antiquity. In 1827, Russwurm described his visit to see the Egyptian Mummy and reflected on the ways white society treats African people as inferior, even though Egypt was once “the only seat of chivalry, science, arts and civilization.”
Russwurm describes himself as “the descendent of Cush,” the oldest son of Ham and a grandson of Noah, who is associated with the ancient Sudanese Kingdom of Cush in the Bible. He mourns the “present condition of a people, who, for more than one thousand years, were the most civilized and enlightened.”
“But who can convince us that the intellectual powers of man are inferior because nature’s God has tinged his complexion with a darker hue?” Russwurm continued. “The doctrine is contrary to all of the evidences we have of the creation.”
Russwurm also wrote of his struggles with the indignities of racial discrimination. In a letter to Cornish, he expressed the pain he felt at being prohibited from using the sleeping accommodations on a ship departing New York. “The labours of the previous week had nearly exhausted my wearied frame,” he wrote, “and when I enquired after breakfast, for b[e]rth, none could be had though nearly all were unoccupied; it being contrary to all the rules of humanity, and justice, and equality that a person of colour, however respectable, should sleep in the cabin of the Hudson.”
During this period, Russwurm was also fervently opposed to the American Colonization Society and its mission to send free African Americans and enslaved people to the colony of Liberia, in West Africa. Founded in 1816, the ACS was launched by 50 leading white men, including both Northern moderates and Southern slaveholders. Its founding members included Judge Bushrod Washington, nephew of George Washington; Francis Scott Key, composer of “The Star Spangled Banner;” Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives; and future president Andrew Jackson. Supporters of the colonization effort also included James Madison, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln and his Maine-born Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin.
Northerners in the organization opposed slavery, but they believed American society was far too racist to ever accept Black people as equals. Southern slaveholders in the ACS liked the idea of sending free Black Americans back to Africa, because they lived in constant fear that free Blacks would provoke insurrections among their enslaved brethren.
But the vast majority of African Americans resented being seen as a “problem” that needed to be removed. They had built the economic foundation of the United States with their forced labor and they had just as much right to live here as any white man. Sparks flew during a debate on the colonization question at the Third Congregational Church in Portland on July 8, 1833. As a free Black man named “Mr. Monroe” listened to white men on both sides of the debate pontificating, he jumped up and verbally eviscerated the colonizationists.
As Edward O. Shriver wrote in his book, Go Free: The Anti-Slavery Impulse in Maine, Mr. Monroe — who had been preaching at the Abyssinian Meeting House, a Black church on Newbury Street — declared that the ACS was “a plot to get rid of the free Negro, a conspiracy founded upon the basest sort of prejudice.” Schriver wrote that the pro-colonization faction in attendance violently erupted upon hearing that accusation, and local abolitionist Samuel Fessenden had to take the floor and restore order.
Russwurm lambasted the organization in his columns for Freedom’s Journal. “The Society has been very zealous and successful in imposing upon the public the foolish idea that we are all longing to emigrate to their land of ‘milk and honey,’ and a thousand other Munchausen stories, too trifling, and inconsistent to be repeated,” he wrote in April of 1827. “I deem it high time that our friends, in different parts of the Union, should know the truth of the matter[:] that all are, to a man, opposed, in every shape, to the Colonization Society, and its consistent President [Henry Clay].”
He pointed out that even colonizationists “candidly” acknowledged that the constitutions of African Americans were not suited for the tropical climate and the deadly diseases that awaited them. The scholar Tim Shick estimated that of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia between 1820 and 1843, only 1,819 (40 percent) were still alive in 1843. Russwurm further argued that many of the leading white colonizationists “care not whether the emigrants die the next day after their arrival in Liberia, or not; having obtained all they desired, our removal from this country for their own personal safety, and the better security of their slaves.”
The elite white men who supported the ACS were deeply offended at being publicly denounced like that, especially by a Black man. The Rev. Samuel Miller, of Princeton, forwarded a letter to Russwurm — published in the Journal onAug. 3, 1827 — on behalf of “Wilberforce,” whom the historian Winston James believes was likely the Rev. Archibald Alexander, the first principal and professor appointed to Princeton’s Theological Seminary.
“Now really I could not well conceive a better method of checking progress of African rights in all their extent, than to attack in the name of those rights the American Colonization Society,” “Wilberforce” sniffed. “The ignorant, coarse, bitter way in which he assails the best friend of black men, may disarm and destroy itself. But if not — if he has any influence with his coloured brethren, or is desirous of promoting their best interest — how can he speak thus of this society?”
In a blistering response, Russwurm revealed to readers that Miller had forwarded the letter and challenged Wilberforce to man up and reveal his identity.
We place “Wilberforce,” before our readers, in order that they may judge for themselves, what liberal ideas our Colonization friends (according to the Rev. Dr., our best) entertain of us generally. It is a fact, worthy of notice, that our bitterest enemies think not more contemptibly of us, than do Colonizationists generally — that nothing serves more, to keep us in our present degraded state, than the revolting pictures which are drawn by Colonization Orators on the fourth of july, and other public occasions.
He went on to ridicule Wilberforce for simply reciting ACS talking points, writing, “though we are persons of colour, we are not ignorant of the contents of the ‘African Repository,’” the official organ of the ACS.
Rev. Miller was appalled that his name was brought into the fight and expressed his outrage in a letter to the New York Observer. He scolded Russwurm for attempting to “arraign the motives, pervert the professions, vilify the characters, and defeat the success of …. Colonization,” thereby subverting the “best interests of our colored population.” He had high hopes that Freedom’s Journal would “exert a favourable influence on the great cause of the improvement and final emancipation of the children of Africa,” but he decided to cancel his subscription to the paper (even though he hadn’t paid for it yet).
Russwurm’s unfiltered responses to Wilberforce and Miller caused some of his white supporters to abandon him, and the following month Samuel Cornish resigned from the newspaper. According to Winston James, Freedom’s Journal was “taboo” at Princeton University for many years after the uproar.
Oddly enough, Russwurm appeared to have a change of heart in the months that followed and began reprinting articles from The African Repository in the Journal. Then, in February of 1829, he shocked his readers by announcing he now supported colonization.
“We have carefully examined the different plans now in operation for our benefit,” he wrote, “and none we believe, can reach half so efficiently the mass, as the plan of colonization on the coast of Africa.”
After leaving Freedom’s Journal the next month, Russwurm eventually departed for Liberia, where he became a superintendent of schools, editor of the Liberia Herald, and served as Governor of the Republic of Maryland in Liberia until his death in 1851.
Journal readers felt betrayed by Russwurm’s about-face. They called him a cynical opportunist and even burned him in effigy. Cornish, who briefly tried to resurrect Freedom’s Journal under a different name, later compared Russwurm to Benedict Arnold and accused his former colleague of subscribing to the “dangerous doctrine” of “Take Care of Number One.”
But Russwurm always insisted his motives were pure and that one day his critics would see the light. His reversal was rooted in a deep pessimism that African Americans would ever achieve equality in such a deeply racist society.
“In the bosom of the most enlightened community upon the globe, we are ignorant and degraded,” he wrote in one of his last Journal columns, “under the most republican government, we are denied all the rights and privileges of citizens & what is still worse, we see no probability, that we as a community, will ever make it our earnest endeavor to rise from our ignorance and degradation. The vain & idle things of the moment occupy our minds, and woe betide the benign who has the [te]merity to denounce them, and tell us what we should aim at employing our time more profitably. He is denounced in turn.”
James argues that Russwurm was a decent colonial leader and tried to be fair to indigenous Liberians, but his legacy is complicated. After all, he abandoned the fight for justice and equality in the U.S. to become a member of the Amero-Liberian colonial elite. Their descendants ruled Liberia with an iron fist and brutally subjugated indigenous people. A series of bloody civil wars followed a military coup in 1980, resulting in the death of 8 percent of Liberia’s population by the early 2000s.
Nevertheless, Russwurm’s influence on Black intellectual thought and journalism in his earlier career was profound. By the beginning of the Civil War there were over 40 Black-owned and -operated newspapers in the United States.