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front page of the Chicago Defender from August 2, 1919 describing race riots in Chicago
front page of the Chicago Defender from August 2, 1919 describing race riots in Chicago


African American media flourished in the Midwest, thanks to crusading black media entrepreneurs, the audiences of the Great Migration, and free speech protections.

The African American media flourished in the Midwest, thanks in part to the region’s large black population after the Great Migration, and, compared to the Jim Crow South, media and free speech protections.

The Chicago Conservator, the city’s first African American newspaper, was owned and edited by Ida B. Wells from 1895 to 1897, making it the first newspaper owned and edited by an African American woman in American history.  Wells received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her work at The Conservator and other newspapers.

The Chicago Defender was — and remains — among the most important African American newspapers in U.S. history.  It provided crucial coverage of Chicago’s Race Riot of 1919, editorialized against lynching, and promoted the Great Migration and Negro league baseball and integrated sports. Among its writers: columnist Langston Hughes and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. 

Jet Magazine was launched to provide “news coverage on happenings among Negroes all over the U.S. — in entertainment, politics, sports, social events.” Dubbed “the Negro Bible,” it provided important coverage of the Civil Rights Movement. Jet and The Defender’s publication of photos of Emmett Till’s body following his lynching galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and have been called perhaps the most impactful photos ever published.

Ebony Magazine, also founded by Jet founder John Johnson, was launched with the mission to “mirror the happier side of Negro life — the positive everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood.”  It not only promoted a vision of financially successful African Americans, but made its founder Jounson wealthy, placing him on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans.

Ebony also published groundbreaking articles by historian Lerone Bennett Jr. on controversial and taboo topics.  He challenged white myths decades before others in Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, on Abraham Lincoln’s racism, and “Thomas Jefferson’s Negro Grandchildren” on the president’s affair with enslaved African American Sally Hemings. Bennett’s Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619–1962 rooted black history to the 1619 arrival of enslaved African Americans, anticipating by 60 years the thesis of The New York Times’  Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 project.

Oprah Winfrey, the most successful media mogul in American history, built her empire in the Midwest. Winfrey broadcast The Oprah Winfrey Show from Chicago and became the highest-rated talk show in America, running from 1986 to 2011. Winfrey became the first black billionaire woman in American history. Winfrey’s film production company, Harpo Films, adapted the film version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel set in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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