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Robert Abbott & The Chicago Defender

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Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia a little over three years after the end of the American Civil War. His father, Thomas Abbott, who had been enslaved, died while Abbott was still an infant. His mother, Flora (nee Butler), re-married John Sengstacke, the son from a wealthy German merchant family and relocated to the outskirts of Savannah. While growing up, Abbott was profoundly impacted by Sengstacke who earned a living as a minister, teacher, and journalist and was committed to education and equality.

As a young man, Abbott studied printing at the Hampton Institute before going on to study law at Kent College in Chicago. For several years he tried to earn a living as a lawyer but found it difficult to sustain his career. After experiencing the difficulty of trying to establish a successful law career, Abbott decided to change course.

He came to realize that he might achieve greater success battling White supremacy and achieving equality for Black people through media. At the age of 35, Abbott launched The Chicago Defender from either the kitchen or dining room of his landlady’s home. The first 300 copies were printed using the knowledge he gained from learning the print trade and a small loan. Abbott went door-to-door throughout Chicago’s South Side selling the paper.

The Chicago Defender struggled for several years but eventually found its footing. Initially, the paper was a weekly platform for expressing the concerns and voicing the issues of African Americans in Chicago. Expanding beyond Chicago, The Chicago Defender’s confrontational and militant tone became a loud voice in the anti-lynching campaign of the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era. The paper attracted investigative reports from Ida B. Wells as well as contributions from Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other prominent Black writers.

Without the option of traditional distribution channels and readers being intimidated by hate groups in the South, the paper had to get creative. Building an unofficial distribution network, Black Pullman porters and entertainers helped to smuggle issues. With this expansion of distribution, the paper eventually grew to a circulation of over 100,000. The paper was difficult to obtain in some areas and a single issue might be read by four to five people resulting in an estimated reach of 400-500,000 readers per week.

In addition to protesting the injustices committed against Black people, The Chicago Defender also promoted migration. Abbott believed that Black people from the South could achieve greater economic and racial equality in the North. Several of the paper’s articles and political cartoons advocated for Black people in the South moving to the North and the West, Chicago in particular.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott co-founded the Bud Billiken Club for Black youth in Chicago and later launched the annual Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic. Towards the end of his life, Abbott began grooming his nephew, John Henry Sengstacke, as his heir. On February 29, 1940, Abbott died from nephritis. His home which was located in the Bronzeville neighborhood was later designated as a National Historical Landmark. The Chicago Defender is still in existence and continued to be published in print form until 2019 when it became online only.

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