THE Q&A: J.L. Edmonds Project keeps legendary newspaper alive

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Black newspapers have a long and storied history, starting in 1827 when Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwarm started Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned and operated periodical.

The oldest continuously published Black newspaper in the U.S. is the Christian Recorder founded in 1852 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

That same year, Jefferson Lewis Edmonds was born a slave in Crawford, Miss.

During Reconstruction, he learned how to read and write through the Freedman Bureau School.

He then became a teacher, educator and civil rights activist. He was often threatened with violence, so he moved to Los Angeles. While here, he became a farmer, a real estate entrepreneur and a political activist.

From 1900-1914, Edmonds, now a former slave, published the Liberator, an early Los Angeles newspaper for the Black community.

A revolutionary publication, the Liberator was a monthly (turned weekly in 1905) that unapologetically highlighted major local, national and international news, with a special focus on social justice and political advancement within Black communities on the national level.

The paper advertised and promoted Black-owned businesses and emphasized the importance of education and homeownership. Issues of the paper regularly featured poetry, wedding and graduation announcements, and personal ads for those seeking partners for a new life out west.

During that time, Edmonds had the foresight to save each issue of the paper and archive it in bound books. Those volumes were passed down in the Edmonds family for more than100 years.

His great-great-granddaughter Arianne Edmonds and her father, Paul Edmonds, have made it their priority to make sure the newspaper lives on for generations to see.

Arianne Edmonds, who does creative and social impact campaigns through her Ace Consulting Agency, found her great-great-grandfather’s legacy by accident. She heard ramblings about J.L. Edmonds and the Liberator over the years but didn’t have a true sense of his impact because her father’s side of the family was estranged.

A decade ago, while trying to decide on a topic for her grad school application, she remembered a 1904 family photo her grandfather had shown her. She did some extensive research, which she shared with her father who, she found out, had preserved several issues of the Liberator passed down by the family.

In 2018, 10 years after starting the work, they founded the J.L. Edmonds Project, to educate and inspire by shedding light on the legacy and stories of the American West and early Black Angeleno life and culture.

In 2019, due to Arianne and Paul Edmonds’ efforts, the Liberator was digitized and made available at the Los Angeles Public Library for all to see.

“Amanda Charles at [Los Angeles Public Library] is the reason everyone will be able to see the Liberator,” said Arianne Edmonds.

Charles, who has worked for the library system for 10 years, said the Liberator is “a glimpse into L.A. history.”

“We have two years of the Liberator at the library,” said Charles, a young adult librarian. “It’s important that everyone have access to this special collection. The paper was another chapter in the story of that community, a vision I had never seen before.”

The Edmonds archive, which stretches from 1852 to 1950, is comprised of photographs, interviews, letters, an extensive rare books collection, electronic periodicals and a host of government-issued documents including voter registration forms, Black Angeleno business registries, and Senate hearing testimonies of former slaves in Mississippi.

The J.L. Edmonds Project in conjunction with Facing History and Ourselves poses the question: just how was Edmonds, a former slave able to found a newspaper, advocate for improved social and economic conditions, document the growing Black population in Los Angeles, and report on injustices locally and nationally? The two organizations have created educational material for schools.

The mission of Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit education organization, is to “use lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate.”

Arianne Edmonds, a fifth-generation Los Angeles native, moved to Ghana two years ago. I recently caught up with her via Zoom, to talk about her ancestor’s legacy.

DD: What are your thoughts when you think about what your great-great-grandfather was able to accomplish?

AE: When I reflect, I think about him and how he escaped Mississippi and came to a place he didn’t know well. He had to have felt lonely sometimes. There was a lot of opposition to the work he was doing. I can’t imagine coming to a new city. When you’re fighting so hard and giving so much, how are you making sure you are giving back to yourself?

DD: Talk about the Liberator?

AE: The paper is quite elegant. The design. It’s thoughtful. A lot of Black newspapers at the time were also designed very nicely. There is something about how he used his paper to get people excited about a new vision, a possibility for their lives. I see he’s encouraging people to think beyond whatever they could comprehend. He was talking about Black women’s rights before other newspapers did. I see it as a beautiful opportunity to inspire people and encourage people. He was spicy too. He would call people out who were inflicting harm. He held people accountable.

DD: How have you and your father preserved your great-great-grandfather’s work?

AE: My grandfather, my father’s father, pushed for preserving the work in the 70s and 80s. We got the papers digitized and they now live in the archive of America. The newspaper is now preserved at the L.A. Public Library, the state library system’s internet archive. I love that people have access to it. There is a big responsibility knowing you have all these records. I felt this weight to carry his story on my own. I feel proud. But it’s more than that. I feel grateful that Jefferson left things for me to discover him. He was a visionary. He had family members keep things. He loved us so much, he didn’t want us to forget. I feel him so deeply. When I landed on the continent (Africa), I felt him saying, “Thank you for coming here. I didn’t get to come.”

DD: How did your partnership with the Los Angeles Public Library come about?

AE: I love them. There wasn’t a lot of scholarship about the Liberator for many years. I didn’t know if there was a collection, so I started a blog. One of the librarians reached out and found my blog and said, “Hey, we have some of the newspapers here.”

DD: Why is it important for you to tell the story of your family?

AE: This is a passion project. I think about his legacy and how I want so many of our elders to know about the struggles they went through, and to know somebody is here to listen. I want young people to know what it’s like to have a passion and vision for their life. It can be done. I think of his story and his legacy as a promise for both of these groups. There is magic in our elders and our young people.

DD: What’s the one thing you want everyone to take away from the project and your great-great grandfather’s legacy?

AE: The biggest thing I want people to remember, the takeaway is that Jefferson worked so hard for us to have a space of safety, to dream, and have peace, my hope is that the projects we continue to do will help people to reflect on moments they felt proud — and know that they are worthy. I want them to know that Jefferson figured out a way to dream.

“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s most engaging newsmakers or celebrities. 

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

       
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