Celebrating Our City’s Pioneering African-American Newspapers

The roots of Black History Month are tied to the remembrance of people and events in the history of the African diaspora. In 1976, President Gerald Ford gave it official recognition at the Bicentennial Celebration.

Here in San Francisco and California, there’s been an ongoing effort to raise awareness and educate students and citizens about African American history and their contribution to California’s growth and development. In 1919, Oakland’s pioneering African American journalist, Delilah Beasley, published her seminal book, Negro Trailblazers of California, in which she interviewed and documented hundreds of pioneers.

One lesser known story is that of three African-American businessmen who gathered near San Francisco’s waterfront in the summer of 1853 to discuss the pressing issue of racial equality. Each was determined to see Blacks attain the same basic rights afforded White citizens. They believed a Black-owned newspaper could become a potent vehicle for rallying and advocating for their causes as Blacks were subjected to violent encounters with Whites who knowingly exploited their lack of legal rights.

These three men, Mifflin Gibbs, Jonas Townsend and W.H. Newby spearheaded the first subscription-based San Francisco newspaper, whose success forged a path for six other Bay Area newspapers, which published articles, opinions, and literature that helped build solidarity in the Black community well into the next century.

Their meeting happened at the then newly founded all-Black Atheneum Institute, (which is no longer in operation) but was located in the heart of San Francisco’s African-American community, on Washington Street between Stockton and Powell.

The community was nestled in one of the oldest parts of San Francisco, where churches had become the black community’s central rallying spots to socialize and gain solidarity. Not far from their community was Telegraph Hill whose Bay side sloped toward Broadway. It was called ‘Chili Hill’ in 1850. Even though many whites lived there, it was most widely known as a residential area for blacks and Latin Americans. This mixed community created a shared social life, especially between the seafaring men and the lowest income groups of both peoples.

Two years after that planning meeting, these three men published the Mirror, which published 50–60 issues over the next three years.

Thus began a long campaign by abolitionists, activists, church leaders, and others working together to repeal the California state law that prohibited African Americans from testifying or acting as witnesses in court cases involving White persons.

In the Gold Rush years, San Francisco had the largest Black population than any other city in California. Even though California was a free state before the Civil War, many White slave owners brought enslaved men, women, and children to California to work on farms and in factories; however, most African Americans who resettled in California were not enslaved.

This month we celebrate the many accomplishments, contributions and pioneering efforts like those of Gibbs, Townsend and Newby publishing San Francisco’s first African American newspaper.

Read more in Volume 31 №2 of The Argonaut, Journal of the San Francisco Historical Society, Winter 2021 pages: 28–41.

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