In researching a biography I’m revising, I came across an African-American former slave named Tabbs Gross. Before the Civil War, he got his freedom, moved to Cincinnati and educated himself, then got into show business. He found a discarded panorama of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and traveled to Europe, putting on the play. From the proceeds he made enough money to be called “The Barnum of the African race.”
Tabbs tried to purchase the famous Blind Tom and his parents from their slave master, hoping to split the proceeds of Tom’s performances with the three of them. He even went to trial for custody and lost. No jury of White Ohioans were going to judge in favor of a Black man then. Following this defeat, Tabbs moved to Little Rock, Arkansas and became a lawyer and in 1869 started the first Black-owned newspaper in the state, called The Arkansas Freeman.
In honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I wanted to excerpt some information about this paper that I was able to google. It was in publication for less than one year, but it filled the need for black citizens in the state to have a “faithful and reliable newspaper, devoted particularly to their interests, and conducted and controlled by men of their own race and color.” White Republican newspapers were enraged, generally, while the Gazette editorialized that, while a black newspaper would be second only to the Emancipation Proclamation for Arkansans of African descent, the race was too illiterate and naive to handle such a challenge.
Subscriptions for the new paper began on June 28, 1869, with Gross as publisher. However, many blacks turned their backs on him after having several meetings with whites who discouraged them from aligning with the editor and entrepreneur. Opponents even suggested that the Arkansas Freeman could somehow have them enslaved again. In spite of these and other allegations of bribery and thievery, as well as rumors about his character, Gross’s first issue, which bore the motto “Devoted to the Interests of the Colored People of Arkansas,” was successfully published… attention was given to the Arkansas Freeman in other cities, and for most issues, Gross paid out of his own pocket to have the paper printed and published.
Gross’s editorial positions were clearly laid out. His main purpose, he declared, was to use his newspaper as a vehicle to assist his people in their pursuits of true freedom, knowledge, justice, enlightenment, and prosperity. He wrote that his newspaper would “strike off the fetters that bind our fellow men in slavery or bondage, everywhere, whether it be the poor African slave of Cuba and Brazil, or our own white fellow-citizens of the south, who are unjustly deprived of many of the rights and privileges we enjoy.” This type of rhetoric turned the radicals further against him.
Each issue of the publication urged African Americans to do more for the betterment of their population. Gross encouraged them to seek political positions, both locally and statewide. He warned readers against being cheated by employers with their wages and salaries.
By summer of 1870 the paper came to an end. Yet, although short-lived, this newspaper proved important to black Arkansans who otherwise might not have been heard, and it broke ground for the over 100 black state news publications that followed. As Daniel F. Littlefield Jr. and Patricia Washington McGraw have written, “Its very destruction by the local power structure it had attacked proved that the black press could be a powerful dissenting voice which had to be dealt with by those in power. ”