Black History Month Profiles: Robert Sengstacke Abbott, Publisher

Born: Nov. 24, 1868, St. Simmons, Georgia
Died: Feb. 29, 1940, Chicago, Illinois
Best known for: founding and publishing The Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper that encouraged Black Americans to migrate from the South for better opportunities.

During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers such as Robert Sengstacke Abbott who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn more about important figures.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded The Chicago Defender, one of the most-read Black publications in the U.S., paving the way for modern ones like Essence, Ebony and Black Enterprise.

He was born to formerly enslaved parents in St. Simmons Georgia in 1868. He attended Hampton Institute in Virginia and in 1889, graduated from Kent Law School (now the Chicago-Kent College of Law in Illinois). Unable to practice law at the time because of racial prejudice, he used his background in printing and an initial 25-cent investment to create The Chicago Defender.

The first issues of the newspaper were just four pages long, filled with local news items Abbott had gathered and clippings from other newspapers. He first printed just 300 copies out of his landlord’s apartment. In 1910, Abbott hired his first full-time employee, J. Hockley Smiley. The two turned the paper into a national sensation, which ultimately had two-thirds of its readership based outside of Chicago. The paper took a militant stance against racial injustice, using graphic headlines and images to convey the evils of lynching, assaults and other violence against Black Americans.

During a time when sensationalistic yellow journalism was the norm, spearheaded by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, The Defender maintained intense reader interest with its graphic headlines and visceral descriptions.

Interestingly, The Defender did not use the words “Negro” or “Black.” It referred to Black people instead as “the race.” Black men and women were “race men and race women.” The newspaper gained a large readership base in the South. It was often smuggled there because white distributors refused to circulate it and hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan often threatened its readers. At its height, The Defender had an estimated 500,000 readers each week, making it the first Black paper to have a readership over 100,000. It was also the first Black newspaper to have a health column and a full page dedicated to comic strips.

During WWI, The Defender launched a campaign to encourage Black people living in the South to move north for greater opportunities. This led to “The Great Migration,” a movement where more than one and a half million Black people relocated to the North between 1915–1925. The paper also included job listings and train schedules to facilitate the movement. As a result, Chicago’s Black population tripled between the years of 1916 and 1918.

The work of many notable writers graced the pages of The Defender, including Walter White, Langston Hughes and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. In 1940, John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew and heir, assumed control of the paper and continued its work. John Sengstacke went on to found and become the first president of the National Negro Publishers Association. In the 1950s, the weekly Defender became the Chicago Daily Defender and was the biggest Black-owned daily publication in the world. Later, John Sengstacke bought other papers like The Pittsburgh Courier, The Michigan Chronicle and the Tri-State Defender.

In 2017, Abbott was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. His home in Chicago is now a historic landmark known as the Robert S. Abbott House.

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