Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The American Story, As It Was Reported To The Rest Of The Nation

The first draft of American history has many authors.

And they include journalists from ethnic media: newspapers, websites, radio and TV stations dedicated to reporting news for immigrant and ethnic communities.

A new exhibit called "One Nation With News For All" opening this weekend at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., explores the role ethnic media has played since the country's founding.

Sharon Shahid is the lead writer of the exhibit, which features some unexpected icons of American history. Like Abraham Lincoln, who owned a German-language newspaper.

Shahid says Lincoln bought the paper to court German-American voters in Springfield, Ill. More than a century earlier, the country's first German-language newspaper was founded in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin.

A video in the exhibit shows journalists and artists reading excerpts from some of the country's oldest Latino, Native American and Asian-American publications.

They often served as the main outlets for the unique perspectives of each community. Shahid says that's especially true for new immigrant groups.

"What they did in establishing their newspapers and their radio stations, it was a very American thing," she says. "They served as a bridge between the old country and the new country, and that's what helped them become American."

Within the African-American community, ethnic media gave voice to the long struggle to be recognized as equal citizens.

"If it was in Jet, it was correct!" says visitor Chester McCoy, a social worker whose family lived in St. Louis.

The exhibit nods to this history with displays of Frederick Douglass' pocket-watch and the diary of Ida B. Wells, another early civil rights pioneer who published an African-American newspaper. But it was a photo of a chubby-cheeked teenager that caught McCoy's eye.

It was in Jet that many African-American readers saw the mutilated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till. His murder in 1955 helped galvanize the civil rights movement.

"So I was a little kid, and I'm looking at it, not understanding it cause I'm not reading at that age," McCoy says. "But I look at the pictures and I make this connection: He's black. I'm black."

Beverly Cumbo, a retired tour guide from Brooklyn, N.Y., also recalled seeing Till's murder in the media.

"It's very emotional, and I have very vivid memories of Emmett Till and the newspaper clippings at that time," she says.

African-American magazines and newspapers have always been a staple in Cumbo's media diet. Since the Internet age, Shahid says the growth of ethnic media means even more choices.

"They've multiplied," she says. "You can't even keep up with them anymore. They've got a worldwide audience now." An audience for the diverse voices that make up the American story.

"One Nation With News For All" is on display through Jan. 4, 2015.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.