Reference Entry

Russwurm, John Brown

Diane L. Barnes

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Russwurm, John Brown

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John Brown Russwurm was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, to a white merchant, John Russwurm, and an unidentified black woman. John Brown Russwurm spent his early years in Jamaica and was sent to Canada in 1807 or 1808 to obtain a formal education. In 1813 his father remarried and brought Russwurm to Maine to join his new extended family. Russwurm remained in the care of his stepmother, Susan Blanchard, even after his father's untimely death in 1815, when he began a series of short appointments as an instructor at schools in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. In 1826 Russwurm earned a bachelor of arts degree from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Among his classmates were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the future president Franklin Pierce had graduated the year before. In such illustrious company Russwurm was designated to give the graduation oration. In a commencement address titled “The Conditions and Prospects of Hayti,” Russwurm foreshadowed his later activism on behalf of people of African descent around the world. Parts of the address were reprinted in several periodicals, gaining Russwurm considerable public attention. In 1829 Bowdoin College presented Russwurm with an honorary master of arts degree. Instead of going to live in Haiti after his graduation, Russwurm moved to New York City where he joined the Presbyterian minister Samuel Cornish in establishing the nation's first black-published newspaper, Freedom's Journal. Dedicated to the cause of black uplift, civil rights, and reform, Freedom's Journal first appeared in March 1827. The weekly advocated the abolition of slavery, opposed African colonization, published fiction and poetry, and promoted education for African Americans. In their initial prospectus the journal's editors, Russwurm and Cornish, declared that “the diffusion of knowledge, and raising our community into respectability, are the principal motives which influence us in our present undertaking, we hope our hands will be upheld by all our brethren and friends.” Cornish dropped out of the editing venture after a mere six months, leaving Freedom's Journal to continue under Russwurm's able editorial pen. Cornish claimed that he was leaving to pursue missionary work in his role as a minister, but it is more likely that the pair fell out over Russwurm's growing support for African colonization. Russwurm ceased publication of Freedom's Journal in March 1829 and within seven months set sail for Monrovia, Liberia, the colony established in 1822 by the American Colonization Society as a refuge for free African Americans. Arriving in Monrovia in November 1829, Russwurm assumed the editor's post at the Liberia Herald in 1830. Soon after he was appointed colonial secretary, which gave him control of government printing services and a supervisory role in public education. In 1833 he married the Baltimore émigré Sarah E. McGill, with whom he had four children and adopted one son. Amid controversy over issues surrounding freedom of the press and his close association with unpopular government officials, Russwurm lost his editorial position and other government posts in 1835. The following year Russwurm and his growing family moved to Cape Palmas, approximately 200 miles south of Monrovia. The city was the capital of Maryland in Liberia, a colony founded in 1834 by the Maryland State Colonization Society, a breakaway chapter of the American Colonization Society. In 1836 Russwurm was appointed governor of Maryland in Liberia. After the first two white colonial governors fell ill shortly after their arrival on the African coast, the organizing authority reasoned that a black man already acclimated to Africa might last longer in the post. In that assumption the authority was correct, and Russwurm led the country until his death in 1851. During his tenure in office, the governor oversaw the adoption of a legal code, the creation of a system of currency, and the organization of business activities and connections. Russwurm also proved able to smooth over disagreements between groups of settlers who hoped that Maryland in Liberia would be granted independent rule. In memory of his service an island off Cape Palmas and a town were named for him in what is today Maryland County in the Republic of Liberia. See also American Colonization Society; Black Abolitionists; Black Politics; Black Press; Black Uplift; Civil Rights; Colonization; Cornish, Samuel; Education; Free African Americans before the Civil War (North); Haiti; Liberia; Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth; Pierce, Franklin; and Reform.

Reference Entry.  787 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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