The Chicago Reflector
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A slight growth in Chicago's African American population towards the end of the nineteenth century accompanied a period of increased newspaper founding in the city. This included the founding of the Chicago Conservator [LCCN: sn84024048] in 1878, Chicago's first African American newspaper and second in the state of Illinois. Following in its wake, the Chicago Reflector was a weekly paper published every Saturday and was one of about twenty other African American newspapers started in the city between 1878 and 1900.
Thought to run from 1895 to 1906, the October 16, 1897 issue of the Reflector is the only surviving issue on record. The issue advertises a circulation of 3,000 and names T.P. Rawlings as editor. Little information is available about Rawlings, but advertisements promoting printing services indicate Rawlings owned a printing business. Rawlings is listed as publisher of two other short-lived Chicago weekly publications, All About Us (1896-99) and the Church Organ (1893-98) (A. Gilbert Belles, "The Black Press in Illinois," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 68, no. 4: 344-52).
Contents of the 1897 issue suggest the Reflector functioned much like a small-town paper, covering local (Chicago) illnesses, deaths, community social events, church attendance and services, as well as personal travel. The issue includes a poetry section, cartoons, national and international news, and brief coverage of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Analysis of its remaining contents suggests comparison with the editorial goals of the Conservator, described by one historian as "one of the prototypes" (Ralph Nelson Davis, "The Negro Newspaper in Chicago, M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1939, 5) of early twentieth-century Black newspapers in its promoting racial solidarity and the social progress of African Americans as a group.
The front-page article in the 1897 issue, "Negro Progress: What He has Accomplished Since His Emancipation: Facts and Figures" measures this progress in education and economic prosperity, providing various counts illustrating the state of this progress: "40,000 students in the higher institutions of learning, 30,000 negro teachers, 20,000 youths learning trades…500 negro doctors, 200 lawyers…$10,000 in school property, $20,000 in church property….$60,000.000 in personal property." Also like the Conservator, the Reflector was without official political affiliation, as is indicated by the paper's motto: "An Independent, Illustrated Weekly Newspaper."
In 1896 the United States Supreme Court ruled, in the case Plessy v. Ferguson, that segregation was legal as long as Blacks were offered "separate but equal" accommodations. Racial discrimination in the form of segregation in Illinois public schools was a frequent topic in Black newspaper commentary during this time. A clipping on the front page of the 1897 issue discusses a "race war" in Alton, Illinois following city efforts to reestablish segregation in Alton public schools. The clipping references events leading to the lawsuit The People of the State of Illinois, ex-rel, Scott Bibb v. the Mayor and Common Council of the City of Alton, more commonly known as "The Alton School Case" (1897-1908). The issue also includes the second part of a serialized essay by a Mr. C.H. Sparks entitled, "Status of the Negro: A Review of His Moral, Religious, Social, and Financial Progress—His Critics Answered." The piece argues against predictions of "race extinction" and challenges claims that African Americans could not be classically educated.