The Chicago Defender was a giant of the Black press. It was launched on May 5, 1905, by Robert Abbott. Working from a small kitchen in landlady Henrietta Lee’s apartment, with just 25 cents and a press run of 300 copies, Abbott started what would be lauded as “The World’s Greatest Weekly.” By the start of World War I, the Defender was indeed the largest and most influential Black newspaper, with two-thirds of its readers outside of Chicago.
Abbott was born on Nov. 24, 1870, on St. Simons Island, Ga. His parents, Thomas and Flora Abbott, were former slaves owned by Capt. Charles Stevens, who had a plantation on the island. Thomas Abbott died while Robert was still a baby. Flora Abbott later met and married a German, John Sengstacke, who had quite a history of his own. His father, Herman, was a wealthy merchant who married a slave woman whom he purchased from an auction block in 1847. John Sengstacke was sent to Germany to be raised. When he returned to the states, he met and married Flora Abbott. He would raise Robert like his own.
Abbott studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute and, later, received a law degree from Lent College of Law in Chicago. But it was nearly impossible for a Black man, not even one as talented and ambitious as Abbott, to find work as a lawyer. After trying unsuccessfully to establish law offices in Gary, Ind., Topeka, Kan., and Chicago, Abbott went back to the printing trade and started the Defender, and with it, created a powerful voice for Chicago’s Black community and a legacy that continues to this day.
The first editions of the Chicago Defender were four-paged, six-columned handbills with local news items gathered by Abbott and clippings from other papers. Abbott was reporter, editor and newsboy, selling his paper from door to door. The Defender quickly set its own tone. It did not use the words “Black” or “Negro.” African-Americans were referred to as “The Race.” Black men and women were called “Race Man” and “Race Woman.”
The Defender was militant and bold in condemning racism and crimes against Black Americans. It became famous for blazing headlines, red ink and graphic images that unabashedly showed how Blacks suffered under the yoke of injustice in the United States, including the atrocities of beatings and lynchings. The paper began to attract national attention.
The paper aggressively promoted the Great Migration (1915-1925), which it referred to as “The Great Northern Drive.” The Defender urged Southern Blacks to head North for better opportunities. It featured job listings and train schedules. As a result, more than 110,000 Blacks poured into Chicago alone, nearly tripling the city’s Black population. The Defender provided firsthand coverage of the infamous Red Summer Race Riots of 1919, which broke out in cities across the country. It pushed for integrated sports and legislation to end lynching. Famed writers Langston Hughes and Walter White were columnists. The paper also published the early poems of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The Defender, however, did not support Black Nationalism or Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Abbott remained a staunch foe of Garvey.
It was no surprise that distributors in the South refused to circulate the paper, but that didn’t stop people from reading it. The paper was smuggled in by Pullman Porters and traveling entertainers. It was passed from person to person and read aloud in barbershops and churches.
The Chicago Defender was the first Black newspaper to have a circulation of more than 100,000, a health column, an entertainment section and a full page of comics. The city of Chicago was presented as a lively and attractive place for Blacks to live. By the 1920s, circulation was over 200,000. At the height of its popularity, it is estimated that each copy sold was read by four or five others, putting its actual readership at more than 500,000.
In 1923, Abbott and editor Lucius Harper created the Bud Billiken Club, named for a fictional character Abbott created, and organized annual parades to promote healthy activities for Black youth. The tradition continues each year on the second Saturday in August. The parade is the oldest and largest African-American parade in the country and the largest single event in Chicago. Like our own African-American Day Parade held in Harlem, the Bud Billiken Parade features music, marching bands, celebrities, politicians and beauty queens. Famous people like Michael Jordan, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington, Oprah Winfrey, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday all attended the parade over the years.
The success of the Chicago Defender made Abbott a wealthy, powerful and influential man. He was one of the nation’s first Black millionaires and was dubbed “The Colored William Randolph Hearst.” Abbott used his position to help others. He purchased a house for his former landlady who offered her kitchen to him when he first started out and who continued to support him as he struggled to get his paper off the ground. He helped aviator Bessie Coleman get to France where she learned to be a pilot. Coleman would become the first Black female pilot. He even gave financial help to the white family who had owned his father after they fell on hard times.
Abbott died of Bright’s Disease on Feb. 29, 1940, at age 69.
His nephew and heir, John Herman Henry Sengstacke, took over the paper in 1940 and continued his uncle’s policy of championing Black people on its pages. Among his own accomplishments was his influencing President Harry Truman to issue an order ending segregation in the military. Sengstacke also helped integrate Chicago’s city government. He pushed for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create skilled management jobs for Blacks in the postal service. Sengstacke became the first president of the National Negro Publishers Association, an organization founded to establish unity among the Black newspapers. There are more than 200 Black newspaper members in the organization, known today as the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
On Feb. 6, 1956, the Defender became the Chicago Daily Defender, the largest Black-owned and -operated daily in the world.
Sengstacke established his own newspaper empire with Detroit’s Michigan Chronicle, the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Tenn., and the Pittsburgh Courier. He served as publisher of the Defender until his death in May 1997.
On Feb. 13, 2008, the Chicago Defender returned to its roots as a weekly publication.