Four pages, two dollars, one vision: This is what hope looked like to many Americans in December 1847 when Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, first appeared in print. The seasoned journalist, now a global crusader for the cause of abolition, poured profits from his British speaking tour into the start-up enterprise. Working with editor Martin R. Delany and others, Douglass inaugurated the press in Rochester, New York. The newspaper’s title referred to the Underground Railroad’s skyward guide, and the masthead proclaimed: “Right is of no sex–Truth is of no color–God is the father of us all, and all we are brethren.”
That sweeping directive shaped The North Star’s coverage of injustice, which often stretched across the Atlantic to cover the European revolutions of 1848. Foreign or familiar, the cause of freedom filled The North Star’s pages and inspired a transatlantic community of activist readers. “A revolution now cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence, but flashes with lightning speed from heart to heart, from land to land, till it has traversed the globe, compelling all the members of our common brotherhood at once, to pass judgment upon its merits,” Douglass wrote in one editorial. Describing events in Paris, his words hit home for Americans. From the beginning, Douglass’s North Star supplied news and nurtured revolution.
Building on that legacy, a modern version of The North Star launches today as a multiplatform media outlet, led by progressive journalists Shaun King and Benjamin P. Dixon, with historian Keisha N. Blain at the helm as editor in chief. Through written content, podcasts, video broadcasts, and an app, the new North Star editorial team plans to explore issues of civil rights, human rights, and social justice in America and around the world. Inspired by Douglass’ focus on “liberty, humanity, progress,” this North Star reboots the idea of grassroots journalism. “In thinking about reviving The North Star, we wanted to meet the needs of someone living in 2019,” Blain says. The North Star platform will provide a new online ecosystem for interpreting news, encouraging dialogue, and providing concrete solutions. “We are unapologetic in our stance, and I think people appreciate that,” Blain says. “If you need the tools to make your work even more effective, come here.”
In the original North Star, Douglass’s call for abolition swelled with each issue. Subscriptions grew to more than 4,000; in 1851 it merged with another abolitionist newspaper, Gerrit Smith’s Liberty Party Paper. Amid the fractious politics of the 1840s and 1850s, which saw the rise of third parties like the Know Nothings and violent clashes in Kansas and Virginia, Douglass’s North Star was a voice of moral authority. Living up to the masthead’s pledge, Douglass swung the paper’s spotlight onto the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, held in July 1848. “There can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in the making and administering of the laws of the land,” he wrote in a North Star editorial.
The newspaper’s vast mission, which had brought him into contact with diverse activists, worked a deep change in Douglass’ outlook. Shortly before his death, the great orator rose to address the 1888 International Council of Women, the lessons of his long years at The North Star still fresh in his mind. “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated for emancipation, it was for my people,” Douglass told the crowd. “But when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.”
He gave reform-minded readers an outlet that both rivaled William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, which Douglass left to start The North Star, and amplified the blossoming political power of the African-American press. Once enslaved himself —in 1838 he fled the Maryland home of his owner and settled in New England—Douglass used his publication to redefine American liberty.
“Frederick Douglass was able to teach himself to read and write over the objections of his overseer and master,” says Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., a descendant of Douglass and Booker T. Washington who serves as director of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. “When he escaped from slavery and began to speak out, he started to build his own strategy for the abolition of slavery. The North Star was a mouthpiece for the enslaved and the oppressed. It was an opportunity for him to speak for the voiceless. The importance of that newspaper in that time cannot be overstated.”
When Frederick Douglass began the newspaper in 1847, he changed the national conversation on race and rights. Douglass, Delany, and publisher William C. Nell carefully curated each issue, with help from transatlantic contributors and relatives who worked in the Rochester newsroom. “We’re proud of that legacy,” Morris says of The North Star’s origins. “It was a family enterprise for sure.”
According to historian Heather Cox Richardson, who studies the political thought and culture of the 19th century, The North Star gave African-Americans a public channel that hadn’t existed before. “Voices that are not heard cannot be included in American debate; they can only be reflected by those others who care about them,” she says. When Douglass chose to leave The Liberator, he turned away from the paternalism of Garrisonian abolitionism, and opened up a new path for the movement. His founding of The North Star signaled a new chapter for both the man and his mission. Frederick Douglass’ leadership of the North Star, along with his shrewd use of new forms of mass media like photography, sent a bold message about the visibility of African-American citizenship. “Only a presence in national debate can change the national narrative,” Richardson says.
Why relaunch The North Star now? “We’re in an incredibly complicated and consequential time politically,” King says. “There are lots of changes that are happening, that people are fighting for on the grassroots level, globally and politically, not just justice reform.” Critically, The North Star also aims to fill what Dixon calls “a big gaping hole” in the current media landscape, by welcoming “black voices and people of color to not only speak on our issues and community, but to speak on all issues.” As The North Star community takes shape, a blend of hope and history bolsters the project’s launch. “We’re telling the narrative from our perspective,” Dixon says. “The time has always been there.”