Contending Forces

Pauline Hopkins, Booker T. Washington, and the Fight for The Colored American Magazine

by Tarisai Ngangura
Illustration by Dmitri Jackson
March 29th, 2022

1.

In the December 1900 edition of The Colored American Magazine, published seven months after its debut issue, there is an illustration of a Southern Black family breaking bread on Christmas Day. Drawn by Guyanese artist J. Alexandre Skeete, the picture accompanies “A Christmas Reunion,” a poem by journalist Augustus M. Hodges which details the lives of a couple who’d fled slavery in Kentucky and found their way to Canada, forging new dreams and friendships along the way. Skeete’s portrait of the family glows with a love and warmth that Norman Rockwell imbued in his 1943 oil painting “Freedom from Want.” Rockwell’s paintings are widely regarded as representative of America in its most dreamlike and fanciful state; ways of being that Black people of that era were largely denied the pleasure of experiencing. In Skeete’s offering Americana is Black and generational, reclaimed by elders and shared with the young. This aspirational and hard fought tranquility of his drawing is one that aligned with the principles of Pauline E. Hopkins, who was perhaps The Colored American Magazine’s most famous—and most controversial—editor. Her constant labor was a literary magnifying glass to Skeete’s imagery: she saw the softness, pain, grace, and rage of Black people as they lived and loved. Her efforts were a way of performing a communal service that would continue to work in tandem with the other artists whose work was showcased in the magazine.

It was the illustrations, bookending long features and electric op-eds, that first caught my attention when I came across the publicly available digital archives of The Colored American Magazine. I was introduced to Hopkins’s work by another Black woman editor, Danielle Jackson, a history-maker in her own right (in 2021 she became the first Black editor-in-chief of Oxford American, the Southern literary journal) and the first person who gave me the opportunity to undertake a longform assignment. It would have been a welcome adventure to actively search for physical copies, and yet with the world under varying degrees of lockdown going on two years now, any emotions I would have garnered from running my hands across pages yellowed from age had to come from seeing them via an artificially lit, zoomed-in screen. Reading the price on the fragile edges, which advertise, on the left side, a yearly subscription for $1 and, on the right, a single-issue price of “10 CENTS THE COPY,” heightened my jealousy of what now seems like enviable affordability of compelling art. 

One issue features a stunning portrait of a radiant Black boy draped in the American flag, his right hand pointing upwards and a wide toothy smile on his face. This portrait was offered as a gift for readers who subscribed, and it’s gratifying to imagine that at some point Black families in and around Boston had in their homes a copy as a keepsake. Other issues have advertisements for itinerant guests on the classifieds page, offering readers the chance to board or rent newly furnished rooms, one being “the largest and best appointed house in Brooklyn,” owned by a Mrs. Levi Neal in 1907. I imagine Neal to be the real-life version of the boarding house proprietors in Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, women who took in men like the book’s lead character Jake Brown, and who would have been proud to have their homestead listed in a place like The Colored American. Here, Mrs. Neal’s small ad was placed next to stunning photographs of Black men and women from across the globe, some jarring ads for skin-lightening creams and striking examinations of race in America. It’s the latter form of content that would position the magazine as the ground-zero for a battle over the freedom of Black people. Would it be won with white aid or Black resistance? 

Beginning in 1902 Hopkins wrote engrossing sketches of famous Black men and women of the time, whose work against white supremacy she found unparalleled and inspirational. A few of those featured in the series were Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. She also scaled borders and wrote about the Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture and South African politician, lawyer, and editor A. Kirkland Soga who edited Izwi Labantu (Words of the Bantu), an African newspaper launched in 1897 and published in Xhosa, Sotho, and English. Hopkins’ connection to Soga is one I found particularly profound because I’d never imagined a literary discourse between Africans and African-Americans to have occurred at such an early time. “I would say she was one of the first people to do Pan-Africanist writing,” said Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president of the small but prolific Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society. “There were not a lot of legitimate sources out there on Africa and the diaspora, but with The Colored American Magazine, she was including articles about Haiti, and she was really trying to create an archive for Black people and Black readers to counter the history, and show an essential Black past that we can be proud of.” Knowing a Black woman was at the forefront of this cross-communication reflected the historical role of African women as guardians and active participants of history through storytelling.

That same year Hopkins penned a salient observation on Booker T. Washington, an obvious inclusion into the series. In less than a decade the Virginia-born businessman and educator had risen to the highest rankings of American civil life, straddling both politics and advocacy. After graduating from Wayland Seminary, he went on to lead the Tuskegee Institute, overseeing the campus expansion and supporting various schools across the country that were committed to educating Black learners. He also emerged as an accomplished orator, giving speeches across the country on the state of race relations, writing several books including Up from Slavery, his best known biography, and even dining with then-President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. While admired by both Black and white Americans alike, and upheld as a heady symbol of “rags to riches” success, Washington faced great criticism from the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois for ceding room to white paranoia and disavowing the merits of art and culture as a tool for Black autonomy, expression, and mobility. 

In his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, which is commonly known as the “Atlanta Compromise” speech, Washington shared his philosophy that vocational learning at trade schools would help Black people acquire economic freedom so much more than higher education, arts, culture, and civil rights. Du Bois, like Hopkins, was a major proponent of the arts and believed them intrinsic to Black liberation—literature was food for the soul and the streets. Washington’s beliefs were well received and wildly applauded both in the Northern states and across the South. In the speech, he was able to present himself as a more understanding race leader, one willing to have discussions on issues more appealing to white benefactors than state violence and systematic disenfranchisement. His approach led to funding for hundreds of schools in the South courtesy of white patrons, but it left little room for white culpability and instead placed the oppressive state of Black people in America solely at their own feet. 

While Hopkins wrote aspirational, laudatory sketches on the likes of Tubman and Du Bois,  she was polite and distant in her Washington essay. “When the happenings of the Twentieth Century have become matters of history, Dr. Washington’s motives will be open to as many constructions and discussions as are those of Napoleon today,” she wrote. “Or of other men of extraordinary ability, whether for good or evil, who have had like phenomenal careers.” In Hopkins’s words, Washington’s achievements were undeniably grand, and yet she approached his outlook on Black and white relations with caution.

“It is all very well to talk of the Negro’s immorality and illiteracy,” Hopkins wrote, “And that raising him out of the slough of despond will benefit the South and remove unpleasantness between the races. But until the same course is explored with the immoral and illiterate white Southerner that is pursued with the Negro there will be no peace in that section. . . .The South keeps on in her mad carnage of blood, she refuses to be conciliated.” Washington was a man whose life during that era had been lent a mythical quality by the sheer enormity of his success. By bringing his actions back to the realm of mortals and putting a spotlight on the millions of people who were forgotten in the name of forced tolerance, Hopkins’s essay punctured the Washington myth. 

She did note his unmatched ability to connect and negotiate with the wealthy elite like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, writing, “His speeches on the Negro problem, and in behalf of the Institute [Tuskegee], are able and teem with honor,” adding that, “they possess also the essential property of attracting the attention of the monied element, for Dr. Washington is without a peer in this particular line.” But Hopkins believed that Washington’s single-minded desire for financial access was at times to the detriment of an ideal she believed could not be bought—Black liberation without white constraints. It was that utopia she attempted to build during her years at The Colored American 

By the time Hopkins wrote her piece on Washington, her writing career had reached what looked to be stable footing for a Black woman living at the turn of the century. Eschewing the freelance route, she hoped to spend the rest of her writing days at The Colored American, where she’d been since the magazine’s formation. She was one of its first hires and was deeply invested in its success, writing several features per issue, often under pseudonyms so readers wouldn’t tire of seeing her name (and later for safety reasons). Although she was primarily interested in the magazine’s editorial operations, Hopkins was also invested in its financial health and commercial viability. According to her biography, she had a knack for introducing different avenues to attract readers, including the creation of a subscription model and drafting engaging editorial callouts for funding. She put everything she could into running the magazine, including her wit, organizing skills, and economic acumen, working past normal business hours and sacrificing a social life to ensure its quality. In The Colored American, Hopkins found a welcome audience in a Black publication that, though under-staffed and consistently nearing insolvency, worked to offer both visibility and financial compensation to its contributors.

All this artistic progress and business development would come to an astounding and bitter end two years after Hopkins published her Washington entry. While not a hit piece by any margin, it paled alongside the articles written by white people who revered him, and Black leaders who viewed him as a potent model for hope. Hopkins was hardly the first person to take on what she believed to be Washington’s accommodationist policies—policies that called for Black people to warm themselves with the same fire set by thieves and not fear getting burned alive. Another notable critic of Washington’s social stances was William Monroe Trotter, the founder and editor of the well-respected Boston Guardian. But Hopkins was one of very few upwardly mobile, policy-focused Black women to take on the preeminent “race man.” 

It didn’t help matters that her critiques of Washington became a regular feature of The Colored American. In 1903’s “Latest Phases of the Race Problem in America,” a lead essay written under a pseudonym, Hopkins delivered what seems to be the most blistering take against Washington and those who stood by him. She wrote, “Any proposal to submit the question of the political or civil rights of the Negro to the arbitrament of the whites is as absurd as to submit the question of the political rights of the whites to the arbitrament of the Negroes, with one difference, the Negroes are loyal to the government.” Simply put, Hopkins believed that freedom could not be negotiated and any work to do so was not only a mistake, but it was one where the stakes would always be unendingly higher for Black people. 

Much has been written about the enemies Washington made as his political profile grew. As Washington historian Louis R. Harlan wrote, after his 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address, the educator’s reach and contacts spanned various positions of leadership including lawyers, conservative judges, and newspaper editors who all kept an ear on the ground for anything that could tarnish his good name. In Harlan’s The Secret Life of Booker T. Washington, he details how Washington kept a list of all those who spoke ill of him. In 1904, he sued the Boston Guardian for libel after Trotter made his disagreements with Washington’s political viewpoints clear and public at town meetings across the city and in the paper. But Washington took a different tack with Pauline Hopkins. He came for Hopkins’s career, not with the respect of facing her head on, but via cloak-and-dagger subterfuge aided by his loyal acolytes, the sexism of the era, and a more than eager white “ally.” Together, a complicated Black man and his cronies irrevocably disrupted the career of one of the most influential Black women of the nineteenth century.

2.

Pauline Hopkins was born in 1859 to free Blacks in Portland, Maine, who moved to her mother’s hometown of Boston when she was just an infant. As noted by Lois Brown in her exhaustively researched book Pauline Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution, Hopkins’s life with her parents was loving, joyful and filled with intellectual rigor. The family of three lived on the north side of Beacon Hill, an area settled by affluent and influential Black citizens such as Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and David Walker, along with white essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1805, Hopkins’s great grand-uncle Thomas Paul founded the first African Baptist Church in Boston. His brother Nathaniel was also a minister and both used their pulpits as platforms for advancing not only religious ministry but racial self-determination. Stories of Moses, Job, and Miriam—virtuous believers who were tested, robbed, and demeaned—were shared as revelations linked to Black people’s struggle against rabid white violence. As a middle-class girl able to attend some of Boston’s finest educational institutions, including the exclusive and desegregated Girls High, Hopkins’s earliest influences included Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Chaucer, Greek philosophy’s theories on ethics, and parables which laid out life as victories between Good and Evil. She had the privilege to not only long for her right to be free but to know that she could also demand it. 

From her late teen years and into her twenties, Hopkins worked as a playwright, producing and even performing in her plays, making her one of the first Black women to feature prominently in their own theatrical productions. Slaves’ Escape, her most well-received play— also known as Peculiar Sam— debuted in 1879 and electrified Boston. The play about a group of enslaved Black people who escape bondage interpolated popular minstrel songs and Negro spirituals, remixing well-known melodies with underlying messages of liberation. Working in theater was hardly a reliable career for a young Black woman, and according to Writing African-American Women, around 1888, Hopkins left the business, arguably at the pinnacle of her visibility. Following her departure from theater, Hopkins moved toward advocacy, joining the Women’s Era social club, founded by well-known civil rights activist and her childhood neighbor, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. For a time, Hopkins even took on the role of club secretary, taking notes at meetings and helping plan gatherings for Black women in Boston.

In 1895, Ruffin, Hopkins, and other women from the social club organized a national women’s symposium to discuss the indignities faced by Black women. According to Teresa Zackodnik’s African American Feminisms, speakers at the convention were various and distinguished: Ida B. Wells; educator and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell; journalist and economist Timothy Thomas Fortune; sociologist and scholar Anna Julia Cooper; Rosetta Douglass, daughter of Frederick; and Margaret Murray Washington alongside her husband, Booker T. Washington. 

This convention was most likely a fortuitous moment for Hopkins as she found herself surrounded by leaders of the era’s growing feminist discourse. At this gathering, Hopkins was in the company of  what white American culture had attempted to erase and disfigure: politically astute, well-read, successful Black women who through their different works had found ways to intersect history, literature, and journalism to deliver fact-based critiques of a society that had revised history to exclude them, and which they were now righting, one well-circulated journal at a time. The conversations she was privy to gave her content and context for the conversations on race, belonging, and American democracy that she would take to task in her role at The Colored American five years later.

It was around this time that Hopkins also wrote and completed her first novel, Contending Forces, which follows the romantic exploits of a mixed-race protagonist, and the racial and conservative social barriers she encounters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. It was published in 1900 under the Black owned Colored Co-operative Publishing Company, which had been created to print and distribute the work of Black writers. 

In the year of Hopkins’ novel’s publication, the Company would later move to its most ambitious project, envisioning The Coloured American Magazine.

3.

The brainchild of four Virginia Civil War veterans—Walter W. Wallace, Jesse W. Watkins, Harper S. Fortune and Alexandre S. Johnson—The Colored American Magazine launched in May 1900. The magazine announced itself as “an illustrated monthly devoted to literature, science, music, art, religion, facts, fiction and traditions of the negro race.” Hopkins was a fitting hire and was already familiar to the four owners who had published her debut. Hopkins was well-versed in the literature of her peers and relentless in her pursuit of racial enlightenment through literary means. Among Boston’s activists, she was a respected name giving speeches at race talks across the city, and a member of the Colored National League.

In a 1905 letter to William Monroe TrotterHopkins wrote, “I was engaged as literary editor because I was well known as a race writer, had gained the confidence of my people and also because there seemed to be at that time, no one else as well qualified to fill the position, for as yet the editing of a high-class magazine was puzzling work even to our best scholars.” Trotter was a comrade and he would eventually become Hopkins’ confidante as she moved through the treacherous waters of publishing. 

Hopkins began as editor of the Women’s Column, where she wrote articles that both upheld and challenged turn-of-the-century expectations of conservative, middle class Black womanhood. She ran pieces on housekeeping, and others which laid out the duties of married women. Crucially, she also wrote about the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism in American politics and the need to establish a forceful and deliberate Black literary community in response. 

After working on the Women’s Column, Hopkins moved on to a more wide-ranging position as literary editor, a role that gave her room to engage with creators whose work meshed with her goals of rewriting Black history. According to Blue Pencils & Hidden Hands: Women Editing Periodicals, by the end of its first year, The Colored American Magazine had over 15,000 readers nationwide, and it had found a community of eager subscribers, many of whom were drawn to support by an editorial in the inaugural May edition which asked for contributions from all those interested in the Black experience. It’s difficult not to hear Hopkins in the editorial letter which promised, “A vast and almost unexplored treasury of biography, history, adventure, tradition, folk lore, poetry and song…” It was her idea to pay for stories and all artistic work, believing that fair compensation would result in a greater caliber of work to rival that of the exclusive The Atlantic Monthly, also based in Boston. Notable stories in the literary section include “Two Years in Luzon” by pastor and author Theophilus G. Steward, recounting his experiences inside the Filipino education system in Manila, and Theodora Holly’s “The Haytian Girl,” an essay on the lives and courtship of intellectual, Europe-bound young women from Haiti. “The Haytian Girl” was an intuitive addition and in line with Hopkins’s desire to understand how Black people, particularly Black women, lived throughout the world in their fight for not only racial equality but gender parity as well. 

4.

The beginning of the twentieth century is largely cited as a heyday for Black publications invested in writing both the quotidian routines of Black Americans and the far-reaching consequences of legislation that was being drafted, passed, or denied across the country. Papers such as Freedom’s Journal (first published in 1827) along with the Dallas Express, Winter Park Advocate, and Frederick Douglass’s  The North Star had made room for something like The Colored American to begin and grow. During this era, running a magazine was no less of a financial gamble than it is today, with publications struggling to maintain advertisers, subscription numbers, and excellent quality of work. According to Pauline Hopkins and the American Dream, by 1903, three years after its debut, The Colored American was struggling to pay its small staff and contributors, leading to a switch in leadership. 

That year, Walter W. Wallace sold his share of the publication to fellow Civil War veteran William H. Dupree. Committed to Hopkins’s political vision, Dupree kept the format of the magazine the same but his ownership was temporary, a short-term plug until more financially stable partners could be brought on. So began the reign of white music journalist and businessman John C. Freund, who was brought on in early 1904 as the magazine’s primary financial backer.

In 1895, eight years before his engagement with The Colored American, Freund heard Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address and wholeheartedly agreed with its sentiments. For Freund, it was an approach he wished to incorporate into the magazine. He had reached out to Washington and the two forged a friendship that saw Freund acting as the leader’s ally in Boston and at the magazine. Freund would share with Washington upcoming stories from the publication, and the two discussed how best to steer it toward a more conciliatory standing. In numerous papers detailing Hopkins’s days at The Colored American during Freund’s tenure, there’s no indication that Washington ever dealt directly with Hopkins or shared a correspondence with her.

In his early days, Freund started off by writing letters to Hopkins, asking her to be more kindly toward white readers, while also attempting to woo her with gifts she could not afford to buy on her own. “Mr. Freund sent me a bouquet of Russian violets by his Boston representative, Mr. Adelbert Loomis, the book of Self-Help by Smiles, an expensive set of furs, a $25 check and a book Eternalism,” she wrote to Trotter in February 1904. The confusion she felt, mixed with discomfort, is further highlighted when in a particularly personal moment, Hopkins confided to Trotter how the absence of intimate relationships with men in her life was something she had long ago accepted. “As I am not a woman who attracts the attention of the opposite sex in any way, Mr Freund’s philanthropy with regards to me puzzled me.” It was only on reflection that she realized his true intentions and chided herself for having been played a fool. “I was so dense that I did not for a moment suspect that I was being politely bribed to give up my race work and principles and adopt the plans of the South for the domination of the Blacks,” she wrote. 

In addition to manipulating her into adopting an accommodationist tone, Hopkins saw Freund as someone who was moving to stamp out her voice, dull her intellect, and circumscribe her editorial vision. “I found that he was curtailing my work from the broad field of international union and uplift for the Blacks in all quarters of the globe, to the narrow questions of the confines affecting solely the Afro-American,” she wrote.

As The Colored American continued to assert itself as a publication unafraid to print what was deemed incendiary, Freund began to write letters to both Hopkins and editor-in-chief Dupree that were cordial, and later forceful, demanding they soften their tone and make the magazine less critical of American democracy. To Dupree, Freund wrote, “We must take high ground in order to disarm opposition and bring out the goodwill of the white people who are not only with you now, but have always been with you, only you have not known it.” 

Dupree and Hopkins had a respectful working relationship, and so they shared the correspondence they received with each other. From this, Hopkins saw the true weight of Freund’s feelings about her work. Despite the clear friction, she continued on, and it was this steely resolve that saw an in-house disagreement turn into a political stand-off. In a letter written in March 1904, after relations had grown increasingly cold between Freund and Hopkins, he wrote to her saying, “You are like all your people; your hearts’ blood isn’t good enough for anybody who gives you a kind word or does you a friendly act.” It’s clear that in Hopkins’s editorial decisions, and likely in her refusal of his gifts, Freund saw insubordination.

In April of the same year, a few months into his role at the magazine, Freund held an introductory gathering in Boston that Hopkins would later cynically recount in an essay for the magazine. At the dinner party, he spoke of his motivations in joining the publication and what he believed his role to be among the ranks of intellectual Black men and women putting to paper the lives of their people. “I took an ever increasing interest in what is called the colored race problem, not because, let me be frank, I have any particular interest in the colored people as such, but because of the principles which had appealed to me, and because I believed that a man should be what he makes himself, whether his face be white or black, his hair straight or kinky, his eyes blue or brown, whether his nose curves one way or the other.” There was no mention of his increasingly tense relationship with the lead editorial staff, and it’s not lost on me, in the same way it was most likely apparent to Hopkins, that Freund boldly centered his own interests as reason for joining the publication.

At this same dinner party Hopkins was asked to speak of her experiences working at the magazine and she spoke honestly of the thankless work made worthy by the knowledge that what they were doing would reach someone hungry for information. She spoke of times when their “treasury was empty” and when their small group felt defeated but that “even on our worst days we never despaired.” Even with Freund’s backing, the magazine’s financial struggles continued, and the businessman attributed this fiscal decline to backlash from white readers who were angered by Hopkins’s editorial direction. 

By the time Freund held the April gathering, the working relationship between the two had entirely crumbled. That same month he wrote to Dupree threatening to pull financial support and laid down what was his royal flush: “Either Miss Hopkins will follow our suggestion…. eliminating anything, which may create offense, stop talking about wrongs and a proscribed race, or you must count me out absolutely from this day forth. I will neither personally endorse nor help a business proposition, which my common sense tells me is foredoomed to failure.” He ended by stating, “Every person that I have spoken to on the subject is with me. IT IS MR BOOKER T WASHINGTON’S IDEA.” After this correspondence, Hopkins wrote to Trotter about Washington: “One cannot help a feeling of honest indignation for a man who would be a party to defraud a helpless race of an organ of free speech, a band of men of their legal property and a woman of her means of earning a living.” 

Hopkins did not agree with Washington’s methods but that did not stop her from including him in her Race Men column, or engaging with his work in her novels. Instead of discarding him, she took their opposing beliefs as an opportunity to publicly discuss the plight of Black people in America and beyond, and to perhaps come to some sort of respectful disagreement. And yet like most people whose ascent to power is primarily built on an image constructed for mass appeal, Washington was sensitive to any criticism that would shatter the veneer of his widely approved character. His machinations to remove Hopkins from her position at The Colored American were arguably to stall her career at that singular publication, and yet it had long-lasting, wide-ranging impacts on her life. 

It’s clear she found Freund’s meddling infuriating and distracting, but her correspondence indicates that she was most wounded by Washington’s actions. Her writing is heavy with anguish and in her correspondence to Trotter it’s clear that she saw his actions as a deep and personal betrayal.

5.

In late April of 1904, a few weeks after the disastrous dinner party, Washington invested in The Colored American Magazine, making him co-financier with Freund. As a first order of business, he moved the magazine’s operations to New York, effectively severing its ties with Boston’s Black literary community and forcing Hopkins to either relocate or lose her position entirely. Over a period of six months, during which Hopkins and Trotter corresponded, there was little her friend could do besides offer her moral support. In one of the last letters Freund sent to Hopkins before the move, he wrote of the futility of her continued resistance to making the magazine less politically strident. In April he wrote, “If you’re going to take up the wrongs of your race, then you must depend for support absolutely on your own race. For the colored man today to attempt to stand up to fight would be like a canary bird to face a bulldog, and an angry one at that.” He ended by saying, “The only line of work must be conciliatory, constructive and that is where Booker T. Washington is showing himself to be such a giant.” 

Hopkins followed The Colored American Magazine to New York, in an attempt to remain with the publication and because the magazine’s publishing house, the Colored Co-Operative Publishing Company, still owned the rights to her novel Contending Forces. In the May 1904 issue published from New York, Hopkins’s name is absent from the masthead and Roscoe Conkling Simmons, a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute and Washington’s nephew, is listed as editor. A letter from the editorial team published in this edition issued a statement saying, “We implore the white man of the North and the white man of the South to deal with the Negro question soberly, tenderly, discerningly; and throw their strong arms about the negro, and protect and counsel him, and be his elder brother and help him get education, and poor soothing oil onto his wounds, and work hand in hand with him, and employ him, and put him on his feet, and teach him that he is man.” According to Hanna Walinger’s biography of Hopkins, average magazine sales of 800-1500 copies a month dropped to 200 within three months. In September 1904, after four years at the magazine, Hopkins was officially let go with “ill-health” cited as the reason. 

Hopkins was forty years-old when she chose to dedicate herself completely to forging a career and livelihood as a writer for The Colored American. Chances are she believed she would spend a substantial amount of her writing career at the publication, much like how her twenties were spent in theater. The unforeseen departure likely upended her financial status, but her high profile meant that the same year she was let go, she was quickly hired as a contributor to Voice of the Negro. Founded in 1904 by former slave and clergyman John W. E. Bowen and journalist Jesse Max Barber, Voice of the Negro was similar in scope to The Colored American, running both journalistic pieces and essays on the condition of Black civilians around the world. Hopkins was there for one year and published several articles, including “The New York Subway” for the December issue. In that piece, she wrote about the innovative engineering that went into creating a “21 mile electric powerhouse tunnel which ran north to Forty-second street in the shape of an irregular Y, with the stem resting at City Hall, bending west to Broadway out to One Hundred and Third street where it diverges in a northeastern direction under the corner of Central Park and on out to Harlem river.” While expounding on the impressive modern developments, she reminded readers to not be lulled into a false sense of pride saying, “Wonderful, indeed, is the country which produces so magnificent a metropolis, but we hope that the warning words of Emerson will forever impress this country and its citizens: ‘The civility of no race is perfect whilst another race is degraded.’” 

Hopkins moved back to Boston, and between 1905 and 1911 she appeared at numerous gatherings on civil rights. Two events bear particular significance. In December 1905 she attended the centennial party of prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison hosted by her confidante, William Trotter. Trotter gave Hopkins a prime speaking position at the affair and featured her photograph on the front page of his paper. After her ousting from The Colored American it’s unknown if Trotter at any point confronted Washington over his treatment of Hopkins, but Trotter and Hopkins continued to work together, moving in similar circles that were firmly of the DuBoisian arts and humanities framework.

Freund’s role in Hopkins’s ousting, both as an instigator and messenger, is one that prompts uncomfortable questions about race, power, and the camaraderie formed between men with a shared goal. At their core, Hopkins and Washington were fundamentally opposed when it came to putting faith in the goodwill of white citizens. Washington saw an opportunity to benefit from white benevolence, while Hopkins viewed white engagement with Black people as always being in opposition to Black autonomy. In her view, the success of even charitable behaviors was predicated on how far white people were willing to be uncomfortable, decentered, and held accountable. Her interactions with Freund and Washington highlight how easily powerful men will cast aside racial equity when assessing the perceived threat posed by vibrant Black feminist discourse, and Hopkins was an early example of the compounding effects of misogynoir, the intersection of sexism and anti-blackness.

In 1911 she delivered an address at the centenary celebration of Charles Sumner, leader of the Radical Republicans and a noted anti-slavery politician. Hopkins’ inclusion at celebrations of America’s journey to freedom for all illustrate the remarkable esteem in which she was still held by her community. While the Washington debacle begs the question of why no one stepped in to support Hopkins, it could be that the author, proud and private, only shared the true reasons for her exit with close friends such as Trotter.

In 1916 Hopkins and Walter W. Wallace, her former colleague and founder of  The Colored American, started New Era, a magazine staffed by colleagues from the eponymous women’s club. Introduced as “an illustrated monthly devoted to the world wide interests of the colored race,” New Era was an ambitious foray for Hopkins as she not only wrote and edited, but also owned the publication. The first issue released in February featured a synopsis of “Topsy Templeton,” a short story written by Hopkins on the life of a slave girl named Cindy who worked for a white family while taking care of her baby. Interestingly enough, New Era also ran a full portrait of Booker T. Washington which would be given for free with each early subscription to the magazine. Only two issues were printed before it folded as a result of financial constraints. 

The heyday enjoyed by Hopkins and her peers at the turn of the century when publications centering Black voices were popping up across the country echoes a similar and also brief apex in the 1990s and early aughts, as highlighted by Danielle Jackson for Longreads, when the explosion of both hip hop and Black cinema interlaced to allow for greater interest in the stories coming out of Black communities. Publications such as Vibe, Vibe Vixen, Suede, and Honey emerged while institutions such as Jet and Ebony remained steadily on the rise. The 2008 financial disaster would see many of them pushed out along with the Black writers, journalists, and artists who had come through that era and remember it as a lush time to be Black and inspired. 

While her early sixties saw Hopkins doing clerical work as a stenographer at M.I.T., Harlem was playing host, inspiration, and witness to the artistic voices of numerous Black writers and poets. Writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Anna Scales (who had her start in The Colored American) published some of their most renowned work during this era, with Hughes and McKay widely regarded as the decade’s most celebrated writers. 

Hughes and McKay’s work focused on the perverse experiences of Black men as a result of American anti-blackness. Characters such as McKay’s Banjo from Home to Harlem inevitably struggled to find love, happiness and acceptance in the societies they lived in. Black women who wrote during the same period, though few in number compared to the men, were equally as persistent with setting their stories inside the multiple hearts of Black America, and Zora Neale Hurston is an undeniable part of that legacy. Like Hopkins did in her novels and serialized shorts for The Colored American, Hurston took the romance genre and made it a commentary on Black femininity and desire. But unlike Hopkins whose novels enjoyed a fleeting popularity, when Their Eyes Were Watching God was released in 1937 it was immediately lambasted by writers like Richard Wright. Wright was particularly incensed by the focus on sexual longing which he said carried “no theme, no message, no thought.” There is a recognizable lightness and rhythmic sway of leisure and beauty in Hurston’s book that was also present in all of Hopkins’s published novels. Both women spent time thinking of what intimacy and love would look like for Black women. And much like Washington’s critiques of Hopkins would stall her career, so too would Hurston find herself equally cast aside. Both women, less than three decades apart, faced the repercussions of writing against the grain of their era’s most famous race men.

6. 

A while ago I connected with a writer who I have admired for a long time, and  whose ascendance I marveled at from afar. In the midst of the heartache and chaos that was 2020, he posed two searching questions: “How are you feeling?” and “How is your work?” Without knowing (or maybe he did), he had linked the two, understanding them to be two sides of the same coin. How I am feeling has always been directly linked to the state of my work. There is no separation between the two, or if it exists it is razor thin. At my most comfortable and familiar, my work is a mirror in which I can fully tap into the anxieties that show themselves to me. In college, when I declared a journalism major, I remember being asked on the application form why I wanted to be in this profession. My answer was something to the tune of, “To make people aware of what they don’t know.” I couldn’t have imagined that years later that statement would take on weightier meaning, as my work became constant rounds of excavation, digging through vast mounds of history and finding stories of Black women who had moved through life wanting to be more than what racism and sexism allowed. Women who had made my reality possible through their relentless, always necessary acts of revolt. I came to Hopkins because she represented a type of genesis for the type of writer I try to be. I hadn’t expected to find a literary ancestor of her type so early in time, but after careful research and earnest engagement, this personal discovery made all the sense in the world. Black women journalists, editors, and researchers have always been here, and if they are unseen, it’s because we are purposefully pushed out of the lens.

Hopkins was a skilled playwright, renowned historian, artful storyteller, and visionary creator, whose capacity to do what she did was made near impossible by the work of an unscrupulous white man and a spiteful Black thought leader. Pauline Hopkins was a quiet storm, and an unruly force of a woman. There’s no telling what she could have done had she stayed at the helm of The Colored American for longer than she was allowed.

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