Excerpt: Our Brave Foremothers in Community-Driven Journalism

A look at three women in American history who paved the way for people-powered media

March 2024
Rozella Kennedy
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We live in a world where truth and reality are often willfully warped, and where history is deliberately obscured. As we consider the homogenization of “sole source” corporate news outlets proliferating distorted narratives, and the prevalent underfunding of community and BIPOC-led news outlets, it’s easy to sink into frustration and despair.

And yet, there is a long and noble legacy of powerful, fearless truth-tellers working against societal norms to uphold the imperative of community-led voice, learning, and empowerment.

Some of the great muckrakers and hellraisers of the 20th century come readily to mind, from Edward R. Murrow and Carl Bernstein to Ida Tarbel and Barbara Ehrenreich. Sadly, far too few of us consider the legacy of BIPOC women in this lineage of journalistic change-makers. 

In my work as a writer, educator, and activator through Brave Sis Project, I cast my lens on women of color who made a difference, seeking to provide uplift and celebration of incredible BIPOC leaders and activists who were often overlooked in their time.

There were so many game-changers in ways big and small whose lives are not household names due to the erasure-inducing intersectionality of race, gender, and era. But these women (some were gender-expansive) were fierce advocates for justice and the power of people-led journalism, working at times under physical threat to advance their vision of plurality, truth, and access to the news that was needed. 

These Foremothers were usually obligated to make something out of nothing. Because they were Black and Brown women leading press efforts back in a time where their very humanity (as women, and as people of color) were generally refuted, they had to be cunning and fearless, building a communications infrastructure against the odds. The audiences they reached were eager for these platforms as part of the collective liberation journey.

Let’s meet three of what were scores of change-makers in their time, excerpted from my recent book Our Brave Foremothers: Celebrating 100 Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous Women Who Changed the Course of History.

I hope they provide inspiration to us today as we continue to strive for liberty, justice, and democratic access to truth and information.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893)

North America’s first Black newspaperwoman

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 decreed that runaway slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were living in Northern states. Even African Americans who were not born into enslavement, such as Solomon Northup of Twelve Years a Slave renown, were subject to capture.

Facing such hostile conditions, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and her brother fled Pennsylvania to Ontario, Canada. She encouraged others to join her, writing an 1852 pamphlet that recommended the best places in Canada for American fugitive slaves to settle.

In 1853, Mary founded the antislavery newspaper Provincial Freeman, which became an extraordinarily popular showcase for African American expression as well as a forum for intellectual discourse around the news and events of the politically heated antebellum period. In doing so, she became North America’s first Black newspaperwoman. 

Mary married a man named Thomas Cary and bore two children. To raise money for the newspaper and to help runaway slaves, she became a public speaker, giving lectures throughout the US and Canada on social issues such as emancipation and suffrage. Balancing business ownership, however, was too tall a task, and the newspaper, which had always struggled financially despite its social value, ceased publication. 

During the Civil War, Mary returned to the US to recruit Northern Black Americans to join the Union Army. Once the war ended, she accepted teaching positions in Wilmington, Delaware, and nearby Washington, DC; she also became an active suffragist, joining the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1874, Mary Ann Shadd Cary took the dais at the House Judiciary Committee to advocate for the right to vote— decades before the Nineteenth Amendment and generations before the Voting Rights Act. 

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924)

Founder of Women’s Era, the first paper by and for Black women

Josephine St. Pierre grew up in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, an elite African American enclave. She married prominent Bostonian George Lewis Ruffin at age fifteen and devoted herself to family and civic life. When the Civil War began, she served as a volunteer recruiter for Black Union Army conscripts. She also supported the Kansas Freedmen’s Relief Association by collecting money and mutual aid for Exodusters, freed slaves migrating from the Deep South to Kansas.

Josephine’s upper-middle-class background and elite bearing afforded her privilege and access to Boston’s white society as well. She joined the New England Woman’s Press Association and, in 1869, co-founded Boston’s American Woman Suffrage Association with suffragists and abolitionists Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe. Josephine was also good friends with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Booker T. Washington.

Widowed in 1886, Josephine continued to pursue her interests in women’s welfare; the educational, social, and moral uplift of African Americans; and women’s civic duty. She combined these topics in her 1890 launch of the Woman’s Era, the first national newspaper published by and for African American women.

As the Black clubwomen’s movement grew in popularity, the Woman’s Era became a standard-bearer for educated, upper-middle-class Black women nationwide. During its seven years of publication, the paper covered social events; provided health and beauty tips; and presented important political and civic commentary regarding elections, discrimination, and the rise of domestic terrorism in the South.

In alignment with the ideals of the publication, Josephine cofounded Boston’s Woman’s Era Club, an advocacy group that helped organize the first National Conference of Colored Women of America in 1895. 

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin believed that gender equality would open the door to racial equality. Over the course of the twentieth century, social and political activism became more deliberate, but her early contributions to the advancement of African American women are undeniable.

Jovita Idár (1885-1946)

Foremother of Spanish-American media

While Jovita Idár was born into a relatively prosperous and well-educated Tejano (Mexico-US borderlands) family, she did not escape the xenophobic cruelties of what was called “Juan Crow.”

She believed in birthrights: education about one’s history and heritage; suffrage; civil rights; economic prosperity; and greater choice for women around marriage and child-rearing. She used her voice and career in journalism to expand these rights on the US side of the border.

Writing under a pseudonym in her family’s Spanish newspaper, La Crónica, Jovita criticized local politics as well as the poverty, English-only bias, and xenophobia that the Tejano community faced on a daily basis. 

One evening in 1914, rangers stormed the pressroom door of the family’s second newspaper venture, El Progreso. Governor Oscar Branch Colquitt had dispatched the semi vigilante law-keepers to punish the journalists for critical news coverage. 

Though small in stature, Jovita cited her First Amendment rights and shooed away the rangers, but they returned the next morning when the premises were empty and smashed the printing press to pieces. 

Despite intimidation from elected officials and community members because of her ethnicity and gender, Jovita remained engaged in human rights and justice issues. The brutal 1911 lynching of a teenage Mexican boy prompted her to establish the First Mexicanist Congress, a political convention that sought to address poverty, exploitation, and lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

During the decade-long Mexican Revolution taking place just miles over the border, she volunteered with La Cruz Blanca Neutral (the Neutral White Cross), a medical relief entity founded by her friend Elena Arizmendi Mejía in response to the Red Cross’s refusal to treat the insurgents.

Women’s rights were also a top priority for Jovita. She was a cofounder of the feminist organization La Liga Femenil Mexicanista (the League of Mexican Women), which sought to advance education for Tejano students. In Evolución, the newspaper she founded in 1916, she often wrote about suffrage and the value of women. 

By 1921, Jovita had moved to San Antonio, Texas, and turned her focus to naturalization rights and education, both as a journalist and through her involvement with the San Antonio Democratic Club. As Jovita Idár liked to say, “Educate a woman, and you educate a family.”

She spent the final decades of her life working as a volunteer English translator at the local hospital, starting a kindergarten, and raising her sister’s children.

Images from Our Brave Foremothers included above are illustrated by Joelle Avelino, used courtesy of Workman Publishing. Copyright © 2023. Text provided courtesy of Workman Publishing.

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