Why The Emancipator, a 19th-century antislavery newspaper, is getting a modern-day revival

An abolitionist newspaper founded in 1820 is coming to a 21st-century digital audience, after more than 100 years out of print. The Boston University Center for Antiracist Research and Boston Globe Opinion are collaborating to revive The Emancipator at a time when the U.S. is grappling with how to frame the national conversation about racism.

“We have a great need to achieve a racially-just society,” Boston Globe Editorial Page Editor Bina Venkataraman told CBSN Thursday. “We have to point not just to the problems of racial injustice and systemic racism, but we have to be able to point to the solutions — the ways we get there, and to reframe narratives in important ways.” 

Venkataraman is pioneering The Emancipator’s revival alongside Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. The publication plans to launch its newsroom later this year and aims to “amplify critical voices, ideas, debates, and evidence-based opinion in an effort to hasten racial justice,” according to a news release.

“I think in the case of The Emancipator, we are going to truly be evidence-based, we really want to marry journalism and scholarship,” Kendi said. “We feel that having scholarship in journalism will bring out the best of the written word.”

The Emancipator was first published in Tennessee by Elihu Ebree, a White man who had freed all the enslaved people living on his land. According to Boston University, it may have been the first antislavery newspaper in the country. It was founded in 1820, 45 years before slavery was outlawed.

The Emancipator was just one abolitionist newspaper circulating in the country in the mid-1800s. Others included The Liberator and The North Star — the latter of which was published by African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass

“A lot of what those abolitionist-era newspapers were doing was arguing and articulating the reasons why abolition needed to be urgently achieved in the United States,” Venkataraman said.

An example of why that same urgency is needed today, she explained, can be seen in the national conversations surrounding COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

“There is a dominant narrative in the media that there is vaccine hesitancy among communities of color and people of color,” she said. 

However, an NPR poll found that Black Americans are no less likely to be hesitant about the vaccine than White people — meaning the real disparity could lie in access.

“Maybe this is more of an issue of how we make it possible for people to have vaccines, how we deal with health inequities in the country,” Venkataraman said. 

Kendi also said, “We want to allow our opinion journalists to be able to see and lean on this research that will be at their fingertips, because they will be constantly in conversation with researchers and scholars who are also contributing to The Emancipator.”

However, The Emancipator will no longer only center on the struggles of Black Americans, but communities of color in the United States.

In the wake of the horrific killings of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at three Atlanta-area spas this week, Kendi said opening up a dialogue about the pervasiveness of anti-Asian racism and violence is “the first step in bringing people justice.”

“I think it’s part of this larger phenomenon of anti-Asian racism,” he said. “And I think it is part of a larger phenomenon of racism, and it just goes to show how expansive, how intricate, how complex, how variegated racism is, which then calls forth the need for a publication like The Emancipator that will examine and provide opinion on many different forms of racism that the United States is still experiencing to this day.”

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