The most important African-American newspaper between 1839-1842 was the Colored American, published from New York City at 9 Spruce Street but circulating in free Black communities up and down the northern seaboard. It was launched in 1836, by Samuel Cornish, Philip Bell, and Charles Bennett Ray. The paper was a weekly, running between four and six pages. Pronouncing its editorial mission as "the moral, social and political elevation of the free colored people; and the peaceful emancipation of the slaves," the Colored American gave prominent coverage to abolitionist activity and to civil rights issues in the north. In the presidential campaign of 1840, it declared in favor of Liberty Party candidate James Birney, though the paper was not a partisan organ.


By 1839, Ray had taken over as the paper's sole owner and editor. Ray was an African-American Massachusetts native who had briefly attended Wesleyan University, worked as a bootmaker in New York City, and been ordained as a minister in 1837. He was a prominent figure in the American Anti-Slavery Society, a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, and a member of New York's Vigilance Committee. He also supported missionary and temperance causes, as well as educational programs within New York's African American community.

ImageLike other antebellum newspapers, the Colored American employed agents in various cities to drum up subscribers. And it used abolitionist organizations to market itself; in 1837 the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society urged its members to support the paper, and at the organization's next annual meeting lists circulated soliciting subscribers. Even so, the paper frequently teetered on the brink of financial collapse. Its primary readership — the northern free Black community — was chronically hard-pressed for cash, though at several crisis points determined fund drives raised critical donations from African-American churches and local abolitionist societies. These efforts, supplemented by occasional cash infusions from prominent White allies, enabled the paper to survive through 1841 (the last issue was published on Christmas day), recording the voice of a small and scattered but vitally active free African-American community.