Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
John Brown Russwurm was a teacher and one of the first black men to graduate from college in the United States. Russwurm also was a journalist. He helped found the nation’s first African-American-owned newspaper. An early black nationalist, he became the governor of a free American colony in west Africa.
Russwurm is an important figure in American history, a man of many firsts. Through it all, he had the support of an unlikely ally in Portland: his white stepmother, Susan Blanchard.
Russworm was born 218 years ago this week, on Oct. 1, 1799.
His father was a well-off, white Virginian merchant, living in Jamaica, named John Russwurm. His mother was black and, most likely, a slave, owned by his father. We know nothing of her for sure.
As a boy, around the age of 8, Russwurm’s father sent him to Montreal for schooling. He was only known as John Brown at that point. His father had not afforded him his own last name. By 1813, his father moved to Maine and married Blanchard, a widow with three young children.
Blanchard demanded that the older Russwurm send for his son in Canada and give him their last name. He did so and Blanchard made sure the boy became part of the family. She treated him like one of her own children.
Russwurm’s father died in 1815 but he remained with his stepmother in Portland, along with his infant half-brother and three step-siblings. The house on Ocean Avenue, where they all lived together, still stands.
When he was 17, Russwurm went back to Jamaica, looking for work. Blanchard wrote him letters, begging him to come home to Maine, which he did, after a short time.
By then, he was almost a grown man, she had remarried and moved to North Yarmouth. But she arranged for him to stay with a merchant named Calvin Stockbridge in Portland. Stockbridge became a second father to Russworm and paid for him to go to Hebron Academy.
After a year at the academy, he left Maine to teach at schools in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. In Boston he met many prominent, educated African-American teachers, preachers and abolitionists.
By 1824, Russwurm had saved enough money to apply to Bowdoin College. They admitted him as a junior. He was there at the same time as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Russwurm got more than a liberal arts education at Bowdoin. He studied under professors Thomas Cogswell Upham and William Smith. They were both ardent abolitionists but also supported the black colonization movement. They believed there was no way that free blacks and whites could coexist in America. They thought African-Americans must have their own country in Africa.
Russwurm agreed and Blanchard supported the notion.
When he graduated in 1826, he was the second, or possibly third, African-American to graduate from college in this country. By the end of the year, he moved to New York City.
At the time, around 14,000 free blacks called the city home, out of a total population of 200,000. Russwurm made many African-American friends there. But whites tended to treat him like an outcast.
New York City produced a significant number of pro-slavery newspapers in those days. There was not one black-owned publication there, or anywhere in the country.
So, that year, with help from friends, Russwurm and Samuel Cornish started Freedom’s Journal. The paper came out every Friday, and its motto was “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation.” It covered a broad range of topics, stressed education and tried to build a sense of black nationalism.
In its first issue, the editors wrote:
“We wish to plead our own case. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentation in things which concern us dearly.”
Financial problems forced the paper to fold in 1829. It didn’t last long as a publication but it was influential, nonetheless. Thirty years later, as the Civil War began, there were at least 40 African-American owned newspapers in the United States.
That fall, with Susan Blanchard’s blessing, Russwurm sailed for Monrovia, the Capital of Liberia. The colony on Africa’s west coast was founded in 1822 by those favoring voluntary repatriation and black self-determination. There, he became the editor of the Liberia Herald.
In 1833, he married Sarah McGill. The couple would have five children together. At least two of them lived with Russworm’s stepmother in Maine while they attended North Yarmouth Academy.
Russworm left the Monrovia newspaper in 1834, becoming governor of a neighboring colony, owned by the state of Maryland. He led the colony for 15 years. While serving in the appointed post he created a currency system, improved business procedures, and adopted a legal code. He also attempted to smooth relations with neighboring African groups, but had only mixed success. Instead, he enlarged the colony’s militia and deployed it in the suppression of the still ongoing slave trade.
Two years before his death, in 1848, he visited the United States for medical treatment. He arrived at Baltimore in April. Russwurm went straight to Maine to see his stepmother before he received any medical attention, though. It was the last time they’d see each other.
He died June 9, 1851. They laid him to rest there in Cape Palmas. It’s now part of Maryland County in Liberia. A monument stands over his grave.
I can’t find any trace of where his stepmother rests.
Note: I gleaned much of the information for this post from a 2015 master’s thesis by Brian J. Barker at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.