By Dave McCleary
In 1996, when Joan Coles Howard printed the July edition of the Frederick Douglass Voice, it was the finale of a legacy in Black publishing in Rochester, NY that dates back to 1847 when Frederick Douglass started the North Star Newspaper from his home here in Rochester.
Howard says she had mixed emotions about shutting down the newspaper. “I had spent five days in the hospital after working 70 to 80 hour weeks trying to keep my father’s legacy alive.” Howard explains.
Her dad, Howard Wilson Coles had founded and ran the paper for more than 60 years. Coles wanted to give voice to the concerns and interests of Rochester’s African Americans.
An expert on the life and writings of Frederick Douglass, Coles not only admired Douglass, he modeled his life after him. Through studying Douglass’ life, Coles realized how important and empowering it was for African Americans to have accurate knowledge of their cultural heritage.
The Frederick Douglass Voice became the longest continuously published African-American newspaper in Rochester’s history.
The North Star
“I still see before me a life of toil and trials…, but, justice must be done, the truth must be told…I will not be silent.” These words, written by Douglass, were the foundation upon which he built the North Star Newspaper. It was August 1843 and Douglass was in Buffalo at the National Convention of Colored Citizens, an antislavery convention.
One of his many speakers present was Henry Highland Garnet. Formerly a slave in Maryland, Garnet was a Presbyterian minister in support of violent action against slaveholders. Garnet’s demands of independent action addressed to the American slaves would remain one of the leading issues of change for Douglass.
During his two year stay in Britain and Ireland, several of Douglass’ supporters bought his freedom and assisted with the purchase of a printing press. With this assistance Douglass was determined to begin an African American newspaper that would engage the anti-slavery movement politically. Upon his return to the United States in March of 1847 Douglass shared his ideas of the North Star with his mentors. Ignoring the advice of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass moved to Rochester to publish the first edition.
The North Star was published by Douglass until 1851 when he and Gerrit Smith agreed to merge it with the Liberty Party Paper (based out of Syracuse) to form Frederick Douglass’ Paper.
Still, the Black Press dates even further back, to 1827. A group of African American New Yorkers were no longer able to tolerate the constant denigration of the black population in the pages of the mainstream press so they pooled their resources and founded Freedom’s Journal.
John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, the editors of Freedom’s Journal, proclaimed in their first issue that black Americans would now have a means by which to “plead our own cause”; they would no longer have to depend on white abolitionists to speak for them in the white press.
Freedom’s Journal ceased publication after only two years, but broke new ground both as an experiment in black entrepreneurship and as the inaugural instrument for public expression by African Americans where none had existed before.
Between 1827 and 1861, when the Civil War began, some two dozen black-owned and –operated newspapers were founded in Northern cities. In Rochester, New York, The North Star was the most influential. Its readership included not only African Americans, but also presidents and members of Congress, who used the paper to keep abreast of the activities of the anti-slavery movement.
Under Douglass’ visionary leadership, The North Star firmly established the black press as an indispensable tool of abolitionism. It also would provide a model for generations for black political and social activism to come.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Rochester community saw the establishment of many new editorial endeavors.
Frank B. Willis published the bi-weekly newspaper, Communicade in 1972. A school board member and stalwart education advocate, Communicade existed for 11 years. Articles focused on local news and events and encouraged parents to help their children get the best possible education without being afraid to challenge the City School District’s authority.
Today, when a copy of about…time magazine is picked up at the local bookstore or news stand, most people immediately think of publisher James M. Blount and his wife, Carolyne, executive editor. But few remember that the magazine was actually started in 1970 by Gloria Winston and Peter L. Bibby.
The first edition “hit the streets” in December, 1970 and was sold for 50 cents each. Gloria Winston, now Gloria Winston Al-Sarag, and her business partner, Bibby ran into a series of challenges keeping the magazine going.
“When we tried to distribute (the magazine) in the ‘white’ and downtown bookstores in particular we were met with a lot of resistance,” Winston Al-Sarag said, adding, “I discovered that Manson News had a lock on what book stores in Rochester were allowed to display.”
“I went to Manson News, and met with the owner. He was not interested and did not see a potential profit or reason for his business to get involved. He would not consider distribution because of this. He told me to come back if we survived and if we started making money. It would only be at that time that he would consider distribution.” Winston Al-Sarag explained. Winston says, after much discussion she was able to convince Manson to allow the magazine on book shelves, “but we had to be self-distributors,” she added. “This came in the form of him scribbling on a torn off piece of paper his signature and phone number.”
Winston and Bibby continued to struggle getting out the publication and was only able to get one other issue out between December 1970 and April 1971.
In the spring of 1971, the Blount’s had a meeting with Winston and Bibby, incorporated under the name About Time Magazine and assumed ownership of the publication.
Under the leadership of the Blount’s, about…time magazine has flourished, and has become a staple in the community, chronicling Rochester’s African American community for more than 35 years.
The Blount’s have earned the admiration, respect, and support of the Rochester community. about…time continues to make a strong statement about how African Americans value themselves. They have championed the black press tradition with a continued mission to build a sense of community and create a mirror where people see more complete reflections of themselves.
“The success of about…time magazine is the result of strong lines of communication between staff and the African American community,” explains Carolyne Blount, a native of Virginia.
about…time has recorded local, regional, national, and international news that chronicles the strides made by African Americans. The monthly magazine is available on newsstands or by subscription.
In February 2002, the late Ed Moss brought a weekly publication called The Pride of Rochester to the community. Billed as the voice of the African, African American, Caribbean, and Latino communities, the publication only lasted about two years. The former Syracuse basketball star, lawyer, and businessman never saw his dream come to fruition; he lost his battle with cancer.
Publisher and Editor Barbara Al-Nisa Banks brought the weekly newspaper, The Buffalo Challenger into the Rochester community in the early 1990s. The Buffalo Challenger served the Rochester community for nearly 10 years. It left and re-emerged three years ago.
Banks offered two to four Rochester pages within the publication complete with news, events, and photos but has not been able to sustain a consistent, substantial Rochester presence in the paper from her Buffalo location.
The paper was founded in 1962 by Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve and three other individuals and remains a strong and influential voice in the Buffalo area.
The Legacy Must Continue
When Howard Wilson Coles died in 1996, the Rochester community lost a champion and a leader who lived well before his time. The 93 year old, though hardly able to see or walk, still possessed a sharp, clever mind.
“He fought tooth and nail,” says daughter, Howard. “He was not ready to go. He didn’t want the legacy, started by Frederick Douglas and continued by him, to die.”
Portions of this article were researched and written by Marsha Jones. Photo of Howard Wilson Coles provided by the Rochester Museum & Science Center.