A Brief History of the Colored American Magazine
Eurie Dahn and Brian Sweeney, Project Directors
This magazine shall be devoted to the higher culture of Religion, Literature, Science, Music, and Art of the Negro, universally. Acting as a stimulus to old and young, the old to higher achievements, the young to emulate their example.
— “Announcement,” Colored American Magazine, May 1900
The Colored American Magazine, published from 1900-1909, is of great cultural, historical, and literary significance. Its editors and publishers included such prominent African American figures as Booker T. Washington and the novelist Pauline Hopkins, and it was one of the first general magazines to address itself to an aspirational and genteel African American readership. In fact, Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson identify it as “the first significant Afro-American journal to emerge in the twentieth century” (4). Earlier African American publications were either “religiously affiliated or connected to the abolitionist movement” (Cordell 70, n11). In contrast, the Colored American described itself as the first magazine “distinctly devoted to [African American] interests and to the development of Afro-American art and literature” (44 Elliott), and its content included short stories, essays, and serialized novels. The magazine initially focused on black history, biographies of notable African American men and women, and, most of all, literature.
The magazine’s publishing structure also extended its focus on African American interests, marrying business with literary endeavors. The magazine was launched under the umbrella of the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company, founded by Walter Wallace, Jesse W. Watkins, Harper S. Fortune, and Walter Alexander Johnson. Hazel Carby has written that “[t]he Colored Co-operative Publishing company was an attempt to attain both financial and editorial control in a publishing enterprise, to found a race literature, and to preserve the history of black Americans” (120). Readers could become members of the publishing company by “an investment of cash over five dollars” (124). Advertisements for books sold by the Colored Co-operative fill the pages of the magazine, and the history of the magazine cannot be separated from that of the company, which has been understudied by scholars.
For much of its first four years, the magazine’s most prolific contributor was Pauline E. Hopkins. Hopkins also served as editor of the Women’s Section beginning in 1901, and was appointed literary editor in May 1903 (Knight 42). Hopkins’s contributions to the magazine included short stories, biographical essays, editorials, and three serial novels. In both her fiction and her non-fiction writings, Hopkins, in contrast to some other figures attached to the magazine, was uncompromising in her critique of racial oppression in Jim Crow America, as well as in what she perceived as the moral cowardice and racial paternalism of Northern liberals.
Although the Colored American claimed a peak circulation of more than 17,000 (which, if true, was the largest for an African American magazine at that time until the NAACP’s Crisis overtook it), the magazine’s financial circumstances were shaky throughout its ten-year history (Carby 193, n12). On May 15, 1903, William H. Dupree, along with William O. West and Jesse W. Watkins purchased the Colored Co-operative Publishing Company and the magazine. This was a short-lived ownership, however, and, in the spring of 1904, Fred R. Moore, with assistance from Booker T. Washington, bought the company and magazine, and they were moved to New York from Boston. Washington’s involvement was concealed to strengthen his influence on the magazine.
While the Colored American was specifically aimed at a black audience, a third or more of the magazine’s readers were white patrons. One of these patrons, John C. Freund, repeatedly pressured Hopkins to back down from what he saw as the militancy of her political stance and urged Hopkins to adopt Washington’s racially conciliatory rhetoric. However, Hopkins resisted, and, soon after Moore’s purchase of the magazine and the move to New York, she was pushed out as editor. An announcement of her departure, attributed to health reasons, appeared in the November 1904 issue: “On account of ill-health Miss Pauline Hopkins has found it necessary to sever her relations with this Magazine and has returned to her home in Boston. Miss Hopkins was a faithful and conscientious worker, and did much toward the [sic] building up the Magazine. We take this means of expressing our appreciation of her services, and wish for her a speedy return to complete health” (“Publishers’ Announcements,” November 1904, 700).
For its remaining five years the magazine gradually became more politically middle-of-the-road and, as a consequence, less focused on women’s issues and less concerned with literature as a vehicle for political engagement. It is as though the Colored American became a different magazine after Hopkins left. Rather than emphasizing the “genteel radicalism” that Hopkins advocated for, the magazine, under Washington’s control, began to move toward a more conciliatory politics, shifting its focus away from racial injustices of the past and present toward positive coverage of African American achievements, particularly in the business world. This shift is indicated in more coverage about Washington and his endeavors and the increasing number of pages devoted, for example, to fraternal orders, such as the Masons and the Elks. In contrast to Hopkins’s mission of using literary texts to argue for black equality, the “Publishers’ Announcement” section of the June 1906 issue states that the magazine is explicitly not focused on activism: “A magazine which devotes itself to difficult and complicated social problems or which addresses itself merely to those who are highly educated and cultured can not, of course, hope to reach the masses of the people… In short it is the aim to make this magazine a national monthly newspaper, addressed to the whole body of our race rather than a select few” (“Publishers’ Announcements,” June 1906, 434-435). In other words, Washington’s magazine stayed away from ruffling the feathers of white supporters and de-emphasized literature’s role in race politics. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Crisis magazine, a magazine that would later come to emphasize the same links between literature and black activism, the Colored American, after moving to New York, became “so conciliatory, innocuous, uninteresting that it died a peaceful death almost unnoticed by the public” (33).
The History of This Site’s Issues of the Colored American Magazine
All the issues on this site come from the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and were photographed by the Beinecke’s digital imaging studio. Aside from Yale’s institutional marks found on some pages, many issues of the magazine owned by the Beinecke contain stamps from a previous owner, Jerome Bowers Peterson, whose daughter was Dorothy Randolph Peterson, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance who later donated papers to Yale. Peterson was not just a reader of the magazine; he was, as U.S. Consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, also pictured on the cover of the June 1904 issue. He was the secretary-treasurer and possibly a co-founder of the New York Age, an African American newspaper, published from 1887-1953; Booker T. Washington became its secret principal shareholder, beginning in 1907 (Martin 901-2). In 1907, Fred Moore, an associate of Washington’s, took over as editor of the newspaper, and, gradually, it became a politically neutered periodical that declined “both in appearance and in content” (901). This narrative may sound familiar since it reflects what happened to the Colored American, once Washington took over and installed Moore as the editor.
“Announcement.” Colored American Magazine, vol. 1, no. 1, May 1900, pp. 1-2. HathiTrust Digital Library.
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. Oxford UP, 1987.
Cordell, Sigrid Anderson. “‘The Case Was Very Black Against’ Her: Pauline Hopkins and the Politics of Racial Ambiguity at the Colored American Magazine.” American Periodicals vol 16, no. 1, 2006, pp. 52-73.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Colored Magazine in America.” The Crisis, vol. 5, no. 1, November 1912, pp. 33-35. The Modernist Journals Project.
Elliot, R.S. “The Story of Our Magazine,” Colored American Magazine, vol. 3, no. 1, May 1901, pp. 43-77. The Digital Colored American Magazine.
Johnson, Abby Arthur and Ronald Maberry Johnson. Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of African-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. U of Massachusetts P, 1991.
Knight, Alisha R. “Furnace Blasts for the Tuskegee Wizard: Revisiting Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, Booker T. Washington and the Colored American Magazine.” American Periodicals, vol. 17, no. 1, 2007, pp. 41-64.
Martin, Heather. “New York Age.” Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, vol. 2, edited by Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman. Routledge, 2004, pp. 901-2.
“Publishers’ Announcements,” Colored American Magazine, vol. 7, no. 11, November 1904, pp. 700. HathiTrust Digital Library.
“Publishers’ Announcements,” Colored American Magazine, vol. 10, no. 6, June 1906, pp. 434-435. HathiTrust Digital Library.