The Voice of the Negro, originally published in 1920, was situated at the intersection of three distinct paths in African American history. In its role as witness to the Red Summer of 1919, it manned the barricades of racial violence. As a popular projection of the black press, it both represented and predicted the influence such publications would have through the 1920s and the rest of the century. And as the project of activist professor Robert T. Kerlin, it marked the final confluence of racial radicalism and scholarship from which he would never return, providing a blueprint for generations of academics and the discipline of African American Studies. Thus The Voice of the Negro was both a clarion call and representation of what was to come.
Of course, its most immediate impact was to provide the country with its only mainstream counter to the dominant (read: white) accounts of the multifaceted racial violence that occurred just as the country was emerging from its first global military success.
Peter Kellogg classifies many as having an “atrocity orientation,” a phenomenon by which people or groups notice racism at the onset of atrocities—riots, lynchings, assassinations, etc.—but are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the institutional causes of such violent acts, the subtle racism and discrimination that is foundational for those more overt behaviors. Such was the case throughout the summer of 1919. The race riots that dominated throughout the long, hot months in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles were caused by deep, systemic problems in an American society bent on celebrating its success and democracy to a fault. The black press served as a check against this “atrocity orientation.” But without the work of Robert Thomas Kerlin, the counter to the dominant newspaper whitewash of the racial violence of 1919 would have gone unnoticed by the mainstream white population.
The Voice of the Negro (1919)
The message of the black press in the wake of Red Summer was unquestionably moral, intellectual, and practical, and it was unapologetically proud. But the message was often hidden in anonymity, only read, only discussed by the black readers who purchased copies. It was black news and black advocacy for the black population. But The Voice of the Negro widened the scope and reach of black editors and writers. Kerlin saw his work “as a primary document in promoting a knowledge of the Negro, his point of view, his way of thinking upon race relations, his grievances, his aspirations, his demands.”
That it was. The Voice of the Negro presented the stunning horrors of the Red Summer to the nation, and in the process ushered the black press onto the national and international stage almost one hundred years after its founding.