Lost History of West Virginia’s First Colored Newspapers
The genesis of West Virginia’s earliest Black-owned newspapers have been forgotten and ignored.
For the past two decades innocent individuals and institutions across the state have overlooked a dynamic and expansive history of the founding generation of Black editors and their respective publications that covered the cities, railroad towns, cricks and hollers of West Virginia more than 140 years ago.
Locally and regionally West Virginia was covered by more than a dozen Colored Newspapers (1), in-state and out-of-state, a decade after the conclusion of the Civil War from 1875 to 1884.
In a five-year period from 1880 until 1884, at least seven Colored Newspapers were published in five different cities and towns in four counties across the Mountain State from Wheeling in the Northern Panhandle to Charleston in the Kanawha Valley and Harpers Ferry, Martinsburg and Shepherdstown in the Eastern Panhandle.
The Pioneer Press, long mistakenly credited and widely heralded as the state’s first Black newspaper, was originally established in the spring of 1883 in Martinsburg by George Washington Welcome. In the early summer of 1884, Welcome, the first Black West Virginian to become a member of the state’s press association, sold his interests in the Pioneer Press to educator and lawyer John Robert Clifford (2).
Despite claims by scholars and institutions from the Library of Congress to the National Park Service, the Pioneer Press was not the first Black newspaper published in West Virginia. In fact, chronologically, the Pioneer Press was minimally the fifth Colored Newspaper established within the state.
Historical detective work to recognize and understand the lost history of these Black-owned monthly and weekly papers began nearly a year ago in an effort to better understand the relationship and associations of Frederick Douglass to Black Mountaineers involved with a half-dozen visits Douglass made to West Virginia . Promotion, recognition and the consistent encouragement ofBlack By God l The West Virginian founder and editor Crystal Good helped further inspire ongoing research and investigation.
To fully understand and contextualize the establishment and development of West Virginia’s first Colored Newspapers, we must consider the development and growth of the Black Press nationally during the years following Emancipation. By the mid-1870s, the first annual conventions of the Colored Press Association were convened, drawing together journalists, correspondents, editors and publishers from all over the country to sit for a spell and discuss their profession and their respective geography.
Although the first Colored Newspaper was not founded in West Virginia until 1880, by the mid-1870s, the Monthly Elevator, published out of Washington, Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh devoted itself to reporting on Black communities in both Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
In addition to the Monthly Elevator, dispatches from regular correspondents based in the Mountain State and letters to editors from Black West Virginia localities appeared with frequency in the People’s Advocate, launched in Alexandria, Virginia and Washington City in 1876, the Colored Citizen, started in Pittsburgh in 1880, the Washington Bee, established in D.C. in 1882 , theRichmond Planet , founded in 1883 and the Cleveland Gazette , which commenced publication in northeast Ohio in 1883.
The growth of Black newspapers in states and regions surrounding West Virginia in the late 1870s and early 1880s gave initial opportunities for Black journalists in the Mountain State to chronicle their unique neck of the woods and maturing body politic and civic life. News of the establishment of schools, churches, businesses and newspapers filled the first pages and initial editions of West Virginia’s Colored Newspapers.
One of the most prominent and noteworthy of these early West Virginia letter writers was John Robert Clifford, who frequently filed dispatches from Martinsburg with John W. Cromwell’s People Advocate in Washington City. Clifford and Cromwell first met during a conference held for Black public school educators at Storer College in Harpers Ferry and maintained a working relationship for the next half-century.
West Virginia’s First Colored Newspapers
While Black Mountaineers could read about their local, regional and statewide communities in nearly a half-dozen papers published out-of-state in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington City, by the late 1870s there is no evidence to confirm a Colored Newspaper yet printed within the state.
Notwithstanding an inevitably incomplete historic record, the first Colored Newspaper to appear in West Virginia was the weekly National Post. The editor and publisher of the paper are currently unknown, as well as the date of the paper’s founding and subsequent suspension. However, a few fleeting references to the paper have survived, indicating its publication for a duration in 1880 (3).
The National Post likely participated in the exchange system with contemporary Colored Newspapers published in nearby Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. While both the editorial inspiration and publishing financing are unknown for the National Post, contemporary political reportage indicates the likelihood of the paper’s editor(s) involvement with Republican party politics.
During the proceedings of the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago, a local paper reported on the meeting of a group of “colored editors” in town serving as convention delegates.
“Since the close of the war this class of newspapers has multiplied and they have [lately] increased very rapidly. The present Presidential campaign has quickened the aspirations of colored journalists, and they have dashed into the newspaper business with a daring that indicates a determination to assist in molding public opinion and helping to shape political events,” the paper opined.
Alongside papers in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and elsewhere, the National Post out of Wheeling was listed among the existing publications (4).
An 1880 newspaper article listing some of the contemporary Colored Newspapers includes The National Post, published in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Printed in the state’s capital city of Wheeling along the upper Ohio River, the National Post was the first of at least seven separate monthly and weeklies to be published within West Virginia in the next five years, from 1880 until 1884.
While a fuller understanding of the publication history of the National Post is currently being sought, consultation of existing contemporary newspapers reveal the first sustained Colored Newspaper in West Virginia was George Washington Welcome’s Wheeling Times, launched in the spring of 1882.
Biographical accounts of Welcome indicate he may have learned the newspaper trade in Ohio before returning to his native West Virginia. Welcome networked within the state’s established newspaper community and attended the annual meeting of the West Virginia Press Association.
Founded in 1869, the association made Welcome its first Black member of their organization in 1882. Additionally, in the 1882 two-volume history published by George Washington Williams, Welcome’s eight-sheet Weekly Times is cited as one of the country’s sixty or so “Newspapers Edited by Colored Men” in 22 states and the District of Columbia (5). It is possible Welcome and the Ohio-born journalist and state legislature Williams knew each other from journalistic networks during their overlapping times within Ohio.
In the late summer of 1882 Welcome’s paper increased the frequency of its publishing schedule from a monthly to a weekly and thus changed its masthead from the Wheeling Times to Weekly Times. At some time in the early fall, Welcome’s newspaper was joined at local post offices, hotels, barbershops, school rooms and churches by The People, published by William Allison Sweeney.
Contentious editorial exchanges between the capital city’s Black publications were regularly re-printed with commentary by the city’s daily papers, the Republican leaning Wheeling Intelligencer and the Democratic organ Daily Wheeling Register.
In the summer of 1882, a travel writer for the Wheeling Register visited Harpers Ferry and took note of West Virginia’s second sustained Colored Newspaper.
Baptist minister and educator John William Dunjee was the business manager of The Harpers Ferry Messenger, founded in 1882. Records indicate Dunjee traveled throughout West Virginia meeting with newspaper editors to promote his paper and build goodwill among the statewide press corps.
“Lying upon the reading table of the Mountain View Hotel was a copy of a newspaper that marks an event in journalistic enterprise. It was but a small, four-page monthly, but in the Harper’s Ferry Messenger we see the germs of a great future awaiting the negro people,” said the Register.
“Missionary, Sabbath-school, temperance and educational workers will always find ample space in the columns of the Messenger for the discussion of topics pertaining to this work,” the paper’s prospectus said.
“The Messenger is the only paper published in Harper’s Ferry. Its typographical appearance is neat and inviting. Its editorials have the true ring of progress and hope.”
As the calendars turned over from 1882 to 1883, Black West Virginians could count three separate “colored organs” of their own — The Weekly Times in Wheeling, Harper’s Ferry Messenger in Harpers Ferry and The People in Wheeling — among an ever evolving roster of nearly seventy estimated Colored Newspapers published across the country at the time.
1 “Colored Newspapers,” is used in reference to the historic term popularized during the 1870s through early 1900s. The Black Press and/or “Black Newspapers” is a more modern term. As well, “Colored Press,” was the prevailing term used for national and statewide associations of the Black Press during this era.
2 Spirit of Jefferson. June 3, 1884 , p. 2. 1st col.
3 “West Virginia.” p. 350 . North, S. N. D.The Newspaper and Periodical Press . Catalogue of Periodical Publication Issued During the Census Year, June 1, 1879 to May 31, 1880. Department of the Interior, Census Office. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C. 1884. This report indicates theNational Post was a weekly paper published in Wheeling that was suspended in 1880. I have located two references to the National Post in existing Wheeling newspapers, both in 1880.
4“Colored Editors.”Inter-Ocean (Chicago) June 4, 1880. p. 5. 2nd col.
5 Williams, George Washington. The History of the Negro Race in America 1619–1880, Vol. 2 . p. 378 .
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