John Brown Russwurm

John B. Russwurm
Born John Brown Russwurm
(1799-10-01)1 October 1799
Port Antonio, Jamaica

1851 (aged 5152)

Cape Palmas, Liberia

Education Hebron Academy and Bowdoin College
Occupation Publisher, journalist
Notable credit(s) Freedom's Journal
Liberia Herald
Spouse(s) Sarah McGill

John Brown Russwurm (1799–1851) was an American abolitionist born in Jamaica to an English father and enslaved mother. As a child he traveled to the United States with his father and received a formal education, becoming the first African American to graduate from Bowdoin College. As a young man, Russwurm moved from Portland, Maine, to New York City, where he was a founder with Samuel Cornish of the abolitionist newspaper, Freedom's Journal, the first paper owned and operated by African Americans.

Russwurm became supportive of the American Colonization Society's efforts to develop a colony for African Americans in Africa, and he moved in 1829 to what became Liberia. In 1836 Russwurm was selected as governor of Maryland in Africa, a small colony set up nearby by the Maryland State Colonization Society. He served there until his death in 1851. The colony was annexed to Liberia in 1857.

Early years

Russwurm was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica in 1799, the mixed-race son of an English merchant father[1] and an unknown black slave mother.[2] The family stayed in Jamaica until 1807, when Russwurm was sent to Quebec.

In 1812, father and son moved to Portland, Maine, where the elder Russwurm married widow Susan Blanchard in 1813. Blanchard (now Russwurm) insisted her husband acknowledge "John Brown", as the boy was then known, and grant him his surname. He did so. "John Brown Russwurm" lived with his father, stepmother, and her children from a previous marriage, accepted as part of the family. The elder Russwurm died in 1815, but his son stayed close to his stepmother, even after she remarried (becoming Susan Hawes). The John B. Russwurm House[3] in Portland was owned by the family. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Russwurm attended Hebron Academy in Maine, focusing on his studies to finish his education. He earned the nickname "Honest John". Graduating in his early twenties, he taught at an African-American school in Boston. Several years later he relocated to Maine to live with his stepmother and her new husband. They helped Russwurm pay for further education when he enrolled in Bowdoin College in 1824. Upon graduation in 1826,[4] Russwurm became the first African American to graduate from Bowdoin College and third African American to graduate from an American college.[5]


Editor of 'Freedom's Journal

Russwurm moved to New York City in 1827. On March 16 of that year, Russwurm, along with his co-editor Samuel Cornish, published the first edition of Freedom's Journal, an abolitionist newspaper dedicated to opposition of slavery. Freedom's Journal was the first newspaper in the United States to be owned, operated, published and edited by African Americans.[6] Upon becoming senior editor in September 1827, Russwurm used his position to change the paper's opposition to the colonization of Africa by African Americans to advocating such relocation. These strong views alienated many of the readers, who opposed African Americans being encouraged to leave the United States. Russwurm resigned as editor in March 1829 and emigrated to Liberia.[4]

Emigration to Liberia

Upon emigrating to Liberia, Russwurm started work as the colonial secretary for the American Colonization Society, serving from 1830 to 1834. He worked as the editor of the Liberia Herald. He resigned this post in 1835 to protest America's colonization policies. Russwurm also served as the superintendent of education in Liberia's capital, Monrovia.[7]

In 1836 he became the first black governor of Maryland in Africa, a colony that later became part of Liberia in 1857. He held this post until his death in 1851. He continued to encourage immigration of African Americans to the Republic of Maryland, and supported its development of agriculture and trade. During his time in Liberia, Russwurm learned several of the native languages. He encouraged trade and diplomatic relations with neighboring countries as well as with European nations.

Personal life

In 1833 he married Sarah McGill, the daughter of the Lieutenant-Governor of Monrovia. They had a daughter and three sons.[4]

In 1850, shortly before his death, Russwurm returned to Maine for a visit, bringing two of his sons with him. They were enrolled at North Yarmouth Academy between 1850 and 1852, and lived with his stepmother, Susan Russwurm Hawes. He had stayed close with her after his father's death years before.[7]


A statue of John Russwurm was erected at his burial site at Harper, Cape Palmas, Liberia.[2] In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed John Brown Russwurm on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[8]

See also


  1. Sagarin (1970), p. 14.
  2. 1 2 The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book. 1996. ISBN 0-7166-0096-X.
  3. "John B. Russwurm House." From the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Retrieved March 4, 2013.
  4. 1 2 3 "John Brown Russwurm Collection, 1819-2000, n.d.". Bowdoin College. n.d. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  5. Calhoun, Charles (1993). A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin. Brunswick, Me: Bowdoin College. ISBN 0-916606-25-2.
  6. Bourne, Wendell (2006-06-22). "Power of the printed word: Freedom's Journal--the first black newspaper.". HighBeam Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  7. 1 2 Lear, Alex (2006-12-07). "Crossing the color line". The Community Leader. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  8. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.


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