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Enterprise Publishing Company

By Sadie Van Vranken

The self-published works of black authors Maria Stewart (1879), John Menard (1879), and Tunis Campbell (1877) are linked by the illusive Washington, D.C., publishing company listed on their imprints: Enterprise Publishing Company. After digging into the digitized vault of America’s Historical Newspapers, I unearthed the story of Enterprise Publishing, the only job printer in Washington D.C., run by black printers from 1876-1881.

Enterprise Publishing was the job printer associated with the People’s Advocate, a newspaper published for the black community of Washington, D.C., between 1876 and the mid-1880s with the goal of reflecting “the current opinion of Colored men on the topics of the day to a greater degree than any other publication.” The paper published national political news, local information, puzzles, and other informative and entertaining sections for the black population in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area.

Nestled among the advertisements in the paper is mention of the People’s Advocate’s job printing company, Enterprise Publishing. Enterprise Publishing advertised their efficiency, reasonable rates, and good workmanship weekly in the People’s Advocate. Books were likely only a small portion of the company’s printing; they list “constitutions, letter-heads, bill-heads, invitations, financial cards, tickets and business cards” among the products of the office.

Enterprise Publishing’s self-claimed status as the “only job Printing office in the city in which colored journeymen are employed” was perhaps an incentive for Maria Stewart, John Menard, and Tunis Campbell to have their work printed by Enterprise. In the white-dominated sphere of publishing and printing, Enterprise created an opportunity for black writers to publish and distribute their work within the black community. As the People’s Advocate put it, Enterprise provided an opportunity for the public to “be convinced that colored printers are the ‘boss.’”

The financial success of Enterprise Publishing, however, appears limited. After naming John Menard’s Lays in Summer Lands the “literary event of the season” in 1879 and printing copies “on fine paper, large type” bound in paper and in cloth, the paper offered a free copy of the paper edition of the book in to anyone sending the names of three subscribers, and the cloth edition to anyone sending the names of five subscribers, suggesting that many copies of the book had failed to sell. In 1881, after an advertised special meeting of the trustees and stockholders of the Enterprise Publishing Company to present a “full financial exhibit of the company,” all mention of Enterprise Publishing ceases in the People’s Advocate.

Although the Enterprise Publishing Company’s existence was brief, it allowed three prominent black writers to distribute their work among the black community, and encouraged the formation of a black print culture dependent on the excellency of black printers and publishers.