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The North Star Founded 1847

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The most influential Black newspaper published before the Civil War was the North Star, founded and edited by Frederick Douglass on funds raised in England. It took its name from the lodestar that runaway slaves used to guide them in traveling North to freedom. It began as an alternative to White abolitionist papers, principally William Lloyd Garrison's the Liberator, differing with Garrison over the use of political means and even violence to end of slavery. Printed weekly and presenting a staunchly antislavery stance, the paper nevertheless featured open dialogue about all aspects of abolition and civil rights for Blacks.

In a pamphlet introducing the paper, Douglass presented his goals: "The object of The North Star will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate Universal Emancipation; exact the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and to hasten the day of freedom to our three million enslaved fellow countrymen." Surprisingly, White readers were also attracted to the paper, and its White subscribers outnumbered Blacks almost five to one at its peak. While Douglass billed the North Star as an antislavery journal, it was not anti-White in sentiment. He said that his efforts "resulted from no unworthy distrust or ungrateful want of appreciation of the zeal, integrity, or ability of the noble band of White laborers." Eventually in 1851, The North Star merged with the Liberty Party Paper, renamed Frederick Douglass' Paper, which continued to be published until 1863.

Frederick Douglass was the most prominent Black American in the nation in the 19th century. Born a slave, he taught himself to read and write, organized secret schools for slaves, and escaped from slavery by masquerading as a free Black sailor traveling via train and steamboat from Baltimore in 1838. Thereafter, he made hundreds of speeches for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, often risking his life. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, sold over 30,000 copies in the United States and Britain in five years. His notoriety forced him to flee to Britain, where he remained for almost two years before returning to publish the North Star. Douglass wrote most of the articles and essays in the paper, making it a model of editorial quality. By the mid-1850s, the break with Garrison's "moral suasionist" branch of the abolitionist movement was out in the open, and Garrison scathingly attacked Douglass' belief in using politics and perhaps violence to end slavery. Also active in the Underground Railroad, Douglass hid numerous fugitives in his house in Rochester. In 1852, his novella, The Heroic Slave, glorified a bloody slave revolt; and later in the decade, he participated in the planning for John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, secretly helping Brown raise funds in support of the plan. When Brown was captured, Douglass fled to Canada and then to England.

During the Civil War, Douglass pressured Lincoln to allow Blacks to fight in the Union army, openly supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and worked feverishly to recruit Black troops and to pressure the federal government to end discrimination in the military. After the war, Douglass championed the cause of Black equality and lobbied for passage of the 15th Amendment, breaking with long-time supporters who refused to back the Amendment because it did not include women's suffrage. Over the next 20 years, Douglass spoke out against the increasing violence in the Jim Crow South and the movement to disfranchise Blacks. He also served during Reconstruction as president of the Freedman's Saving Bank, a federally chartered lending bank created to assist Blacks in making the economic transition from slavery to freedom. In the post-Reconstruction era, Douglass continued to support the Republican Party and was rewarded with appointment as the U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia (1877-1881), recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia (1881-1886), and U.S. Minister to Haiti (1889-1891). When asked shortly before his death in 1895 what advice he would give to a young Black starting out in life, Douglass replied firmly: "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!"

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