The Colored American Magazine was launched in Boston on May 19, 1900. It was one of the first monthly magazines created to showcase Black achievements, culture and politics. The Colored American Magazine often referenced itself as “the only high-class illustrated monthly in the world devoted exclusively to the interests of the Negro Race.”
In its beginning years, it strove to create a literary and political climate to engender a Black Renaissance. According to the publishers, the magazine was “Devoted to literature, science, music, art, religion, facts, fiction and traditions of the Negro Race.” It was “A Cooperative Journal by prominent Negro statesmen, scientists and teachers, along with other celebrated authors.”
All of this was available for 10 cents per copy or $1 per year. The price later soared to 15 cents or $1.50 per year.
The wide menu of topics included portraits of successful Black Americans in business, science, engineering, medicine and the arts. Early years also vigorously covered politics and education. It played a significant role in reporting current news as well as historical retrospectives on events relating to Black Americans.
While the magazine showcased accomplished artists, it also offered a platform to encourage new talent that had not enjoyed opportunities in the established publishing world.
The Colored American Magazine readership was primarily educated middle and upper class Black Americans. Its articles and photographs depicted its base audience. While the content was primarily created by and about Black Americans, an estimated one-third of its readers were Caucasian.
The breadth and depth of content in the magazine is worth a deeper dive. Several sites provide digitized copies of Colored American Magazine.
The issue for March 1909 for example was one of the last to be published. Articles in this issue include “Character Building,” the “New Negro Bank,” “An Example of Negro Manhood,” and “Consumption—Its History and Causes.” You can explore these and more at the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer: Transcription Project.
The Haiti Trust also offers digitized copies of most issues. The May, 1900 issue offers a range of content including: A Wild Rose, a compelling short story by M.I. Osborne, Company L. In The Spanish American War and a political essay, The Funeral of Liberty.
ColoredAmerican.org offers digital copies of the magazine as well as excellent commentaries. Alisha Knight, Associate Professor of English and American Studies, Washington College examines the June issue of 1900:
“The Colored American’s editors promoted and fostered racial uplift within the U.S. black community and supported human rights abroad. Hence this June 1900 issue may be of particular interest to scholars studying U.S. imperialism, transnationalism, Hopkins’s evolving editorial role, and historical figures not widely known today.”
Hopkins was a journalist, playwright, historian, and author. She was born in Main in 1859 but lived most of her life in Boston. She was one of the most prolific members of the magazine although her name did not appear on the mast head until 1904.
She was particularly prolific during her years at the magazine, which published her three novels, seven short stories and significant profiles of famous Black Americans.
Among the Novels was “Talma Gordon,” a mystery. It is considered one of the first ’locked room impossible crime stories’ by an American and the very first by an African American.
Hopkins was also a powerhouse behind the highly outspoken political editorials steeped in outspoken racial activism. She saw the publication as a platform for social change in regards to racial equity.
We will cover Paula Hopkins in depth in a future post.
Washington purchased the magazine in 1904 in what some historians have called a hostile takeover. He replaced Hopkins as editor with Fred Randolph Moore. John C. Freund who founded two successful music publications became a major investor.
In 1996, 20 letters were found in the Paula Hopkins collection at Fisk University Library. These letters clearly indicate that Hopkins believed she had been deliberately ousted because of he outspoken, often radical racial and political views.
Washington believed that Hopkins’s approach to racial issues would cause racial discord that would harm readership, hence the economic viability of the publication.
According to Hazel V. Carby’s introduction to The Magazine Novels of Paula Hopkins, the magazine pioneered the contemporary black magazine market, but there were limitations to what could be achieved. Its potential audience was a possible 12 percent of the population of roughly 6.5 million.
“But in 1900, 45 percent of black Americans aged ten years and over were illiterate. “Rural illiteracy was much greater than urban illiteracy, and consequently, agents for the Colored American Magazine were situated in major cities.”
There were 2,500 black college graduates, so a black college-educated elite could not possibly have sustained a journal.
Washington moved the publication’s offices from Boston to New York in June 1904. It became an instrument of the National Negro Business League which he started in 1900 to enhance the commercial and economic prosperity of the African American community.
The Magazine’s holding company was The Colored Co-Operative Publishing Company. Members of the co-operative intended to produce a popular magazine to capture a Black American readership and advertising that would follow.
This was the time of the Magazine Revolution that started in the 1880s and sooner. Journals wee published for a mass audience thanks to innovations in printing and paper manufacturing. Publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book were enormous cultural, social and financial successes.
Members of the Colored American Magazine paid a yearly fee or copies of the magazine could be purchased individually.
The innovative business model of the magazine also created sales jobs for its members. In a remarkably short period of time the Colored Co-operative established a network of African American magazine and book canvassers empowered to advance the racial uplift movement.
The June 1900 issue is the first to include a list of agents and advertisements. Some 24 individuals are listed as representatives of the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company, and this number would steadily grow to 95 agents. Agents could be found across country.
The Magazine closed its doors in 1909, but it left its mark. It not only offered a platform for undiscovered authors, it paved the way for publications including Ebony.
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