New Project Reimagines the U.S.’ First Antislavery Newspaper, the ‘Emancipator’

A joint initiative from Boston University and the “Boston Globe” revamps a 19th-century abolitionist publication for 21st-century research about race

A screenshot of the first page of a nineteenth century pamphlet, with large font that reads THE EMANCIPATOR on top and an Address of the Editor, followed by two columns of text
A 1932 facsimile of the first issue of the Emancipator, published on April 30, 1820 Public domain via University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The abolitionist press, from the many newspapers edited by Frederick Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison’s famed the Liberator, wielded great influence in 19th-century America as a platform for activists to promote antislavery action.

Now, reports Rachel Treisman for NPR, a project from Boston University’s (BU) Center for Antiracist Research and the Boston Globe is set to reimagine the Emancipator, the first abolitionist publication in the United States, as a platform for 21st-century scholarship on systemic racism and the fight for racial justice. The Boston institutions announced the joint venture this week.

“Building on the tradition and impact of 19th-century antislavery newspapers that hastened abolition, [the] Emancipator will be reimagined for today to amplify critical voices, ideas, debates and evidence-based opinion in an effort to hasten racial justice,” says a statement.

Per the project’s website, the new publication is slated to launch online later this year. Organizers are currently seeking two co-editors-in-chief to lead the newsroom.

Co-founders Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research, and Bina Venkataraman, the Globe’s editorial page editor, hope to feature journalistic pieces, data visualizations, opinion articles from leading researchers, contributions from BU student reporters and more. History buffs will also have the opportunity to read abolition-era editorials from 19th-century writers, accompanied by annotations from contemporary scholars, writes Sara Rimer for BU Today.

Thanks to philanthropic funding, all resources on the platform will remain free to the public, notes the statement.

Members of the initiative’s star-studded advisory board include New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, Princeton University professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr., and New York Times reporter and founder of the 1619 Project Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The project takes its name from The Emancipator, which scholars believe was the country’s first publication dedicated to abolition. Publisher Elihu Embree, a white Quaker and enslaver-turned-abolitionist from Pennsylvania, founded the newsletter in April 1820 in Jonesborough, Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Historical Society.

Before his untimely death that same year, Embree wrote searing critiques of the institution of slavery, describing enslavers as “monsters in human flesh” and denouncing the Missouri Compromise. Embree also praised those who chose to free the people they had enslaved, just as he’d done in the early 1800s.

During its short-lived run, The Emancipator had a circulation of 2,000 households across the South and throughout Boston and Pennsylvania, per a separate article from the Tennessee Historical Society. An annual subscription cost one dollar.

As the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, which holds a 1932 facsimile of The Emancipator in its digital collections, notes, the newspaper often ran the proceedings of abolition societies around the country.

New Project Reimagines the U.S.' First Antislavery Newspaper, the 'Emancipator'
The new project will feature a biweekly newsletter, "Unbound," written by the Globe's Kimberly Atkins. The column takes its name from William Lloyd Garrison's antislavery publication, the The Liberator. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Kendi and Venkataraman say that after a year of mass protests against racial injustice and police brutality, it’s important to contextualize today’s conversations about systemic racism through historical analysis.

“When the Emancipator was first founded in 1820, it was very difficult for people to believe that slavery, 45 years later, would be no more,” says Kendi in a video announcement of the project. (In 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in the U.S.)

In a similar way, Kendi adds, “I think there are many people today who can’t imagine that there could be a nation without racism and inequality.”

The 21st-century Emancipator will draw on the legacy of its namesake, as well as other well-known 19th-century abolitionists. Kimberly Atkins, a columnist at the Globe, plans to write a biweekly newsletter titled “Unbound”—a name derived from a line in Garrison’s The Liberator. In the newspaper’s inaugural January 1, 1831, issue, Garrison wrote an impassioned plea to his readers: “Do you not hear your sister States resound / with Afric’s cries to have her sons unbound?”

Garrison set these words to type in his office in downtown Boston, where he also often stored spare clothing to give to people fleeing enslavement via the Underground Railroad.

“Boston has such a rich and storied tradition with newspapers,” says Venkataraman in the video. “Of course, the Boston Globe is part of that, but also part of that are the anti-slavery newspapers that were based here in the 19th century and that helped bring about abolition of slavery in the United States.”