June 1900 (Vol. 1, No. 2)
Source: James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Associate Professor of English and American Studies, Washington College
The front covers of early Colored American Magazine issues describe the periodical as “An Illustrated Monthly, devoted to Literature, Science, Music, Art, Religion, Facts, Fiction and Traditions of the Negro Race.” One can quickly scan the June 1900 issue’s table of contents to see how the editors reflected this mission within the pages of the magazine, which includes poetry, a health science article, a review of an opera, military history, political commentary, short fiction, and a piece on Ivy League campus culture. This issue demonstrates the breadth of topics and the range of interests the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company addressed in its flagship publication. According to Tom Pendergast, pieces by Pauline Hopkins and Maitland Osborne are “remarkably similar to [those] found in Munsey’s and McClure’s, the largest of the white magazines” (70). He adds that “in its very early editions, then, the Colored American was indeed a typical general magazine albeit with a singular focus on race” (70). I agree that the Colored Co-operative marketed the magazine as a general interest publication, but a closer look reveals pieces entirely without references to race, thus making the publication’s “singular focus on race” a bit more complex. The Colored American’s editors promoted and fostered racial uplift within the U.S. black community and supported human rights abroad. Hence this June 1900 issue may be of particular interest to scholars studying U.S. imperialism, transnationalism, Hopkins’s evolving editorial role, and historical figures not widely known today.
This issue opens with a reprint of Frank Putnam’s “The Negro’s Part in New National Problems,” a speech given by the Chicago writer and public speaker in May 1900 (Foner 13). Putnam criticizes those who support U.S. occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. He argues that African Americans are “vitally interested” in these conflicts because the same “aristocracy of money” that seeks to enslave people of color abroad also seeks to re-enslave African Americans in the South (and the white masses in the North) (69, 72). Putnam urges African Americans to discontinue their loyalty to the Republican party and endorse the Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who “stands for equal freedom in our newly acquired islands” (75). It’s worth noting that while Putnam is clearly opposed to U.S. imperialism, the Colored American also published commentary from contributors who supported Bryan’s opponent, President William McKinley.
Literature and the arts were consistently featured in the Colored American. Poetry was regularly included in the magazine, at least during its first four years of publication. In this issue, Putnam’s verse, “Justice is the Law,” is appended to his article. Olivia Ward Bush’s metaphorical ballad, “A Picture,” was written “expressly for” the magazine. Maitland Leroy Osborne’s “The God of Terror” is a suspenseful short story set in India that might remind readers of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A British imperialist officer sets out to uncover an explanation for the mysterious disappearances of his station members. “Grand Opera As We See It,” by Harper Fortune, offers a review of Theodore Drury’s production of Carmen at the Lexington Avenue Opera House in New York City. Harper notes that “Grand Opera by colored singers, both principal and chorus is progress worth mentioning” (78). This is worth more than a mere mention, for according to Kristen Turner, the Theodore Drury Grand Opera Company was “the first long-running African American opera troupe,” and Drury was “the most important African American baritone active in the years around 1900” (321). Fortune commends the way Drury utilizes the opera stage to “relieve that feeling of inferiority to the whites under which people labor in music and art” (78).
A few articles in the Colored American serve to broaden the knowledge of readers with military history and contemporary culture they might not have access to. Charles Winslow Hall’s “The Eighth Illinois, U.S.V.” celebrates the “military efficiency” of Africans throughout history, including both enslaved and free men of color who fought for the United States even though the “pledge of liberty and equality of manhood, has, as to him, been a lie” (94). The focus of this piece is Colonel John R. Marshall, commanding officer of the Illinois 8th, which was the only all-black regiment at the time. James Payton’s exposé of “Some Experiences and Customs at Yale” provides an insider’s view of student life at this prestigious university. It’s interesting to observe how Payton promotes ideas of self-help and meritocracy while refraining from mentioning any racial tension or discrimination on campus or in New Haven.
Scholars frequently cite the “Women’s Department” when discussing Hopkins’s burgeoning editorial career and her participation in the women’s club movement. The column, which made its only appearance in June 1900, provided a regional roster of women’s club officers, a defensive reaction to Robert Grant’s satirical depiction of “ambitious club women” in his novel Unleavened Bread, and lukewarm support for women’s suffrage: “We believe it to be a good thing if limited in some degree,” Hopkins writes, “…but it seems to us that the franchise in its fullest sense is not desirable” (122). The editors discontinued the column after just one month, but they did not turn their backs on Hopkins or African American women. In time, Hopkins would become the Colored American’s editor, and the magazine would discuss matters concerning women and routinely place their portraits on the covers until Fred R. Moore purchased the magazine in 1904.
The June 1900 issue is the first to include a list of agents and advertisements. Some 24 individuals are listed as representatives of the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company, and this number would steadily grow to 95 agents. Like the range of articles within the body of the magazine, the advertisements at the back of the issue reflect the range of interests and aspirations of readers. Subscription agents affiliated with the magazine, like insurance agent Lewis Biggers, advertise their own businesses, while ads for individuals featured in the current or previous issue, like magician Leo Gowongo and dentist T. Walter Robinson, are also included.
Foner, Philip S. The Voice of Black America: Major Speeches by Negroes in the United States, 1797-1973, vol. 2. Capricorn Books, 1975.
Pendergast, Tom. Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950. U Missouri P, 2000.
Turner, Kristen M. “Class, Race, and Uplift in the Opera House: Theodore Drury and His Company Cross the Color Line.” Journal of Musicological Research, vol. 34, no. 4, Oct.-Dec. 2015, pp. 320-351.
Table of Contents
James Warren Payton, Yale, 1900 [Cover]
The Celebrated Sharp Sisters (Frontispiece)
Theodore Drury, as Don Jose in Carmen (Frontispiece)
The Negro’s Part in New National Problems, Frank Putnam
A Picture (Poem), Olivia Ward Bush
Grand Opera, As We See It, H.S. Fortune
Some Experiences and Customs at Yale, James Warren Payton
Portrait, Miss Eva Roosa
Portrait, Daniel C. Brown
The God of Terror, Maitland Leroy Osborne
The Eighth Illinois, U.S.V., Charles Winslow Hall
The Alabama Conference, M.F. Hunter
The Last Act, G.W. Forbes
The Importance of Good Teeth, Dr. T.W. Robinson
Women’s Department, Pauline E. Hopkins
Portrait, Dr. T.W. Robinson
Portrait, Chas. Fred White: A Real Negro Poet
Here and There
Editorial and Publishers’ Announcements