Robert Sengstacke Abbott: Publisher of "The Chicago Defender"

Chicago Defender newspapers

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Abbot was born in Georgia on November 24, 1870. His parents, Thomas and Flora Abbott were both formerly enslaved people. Abbott’s father died when he was young, and his mother remarried John Sengstacke, a German immigrant. 

Abbott attended Hampton Institute in 1892 where he studied printing as a trade. While attending Hampton, Abbott toured with the Hampton Quartet, a group similar to the Fisk Jubilee Singers. He graduated in 1896 and two years later, he graduated from Kent College of Law in Chicago.

Following law school, Abbott made several attempts to establish himself as an attorney in Chicago. Due to racial discrimination, he was unable to practice law.

Newspaper Publisher: The Chicago Defender

In 1905, Abbott founded The Chicago Defender. With an investment of twenty-five cents, Abbott published the first edition of The Chicago Defender by using his landlord’s kitchen to print copies of the paper. The first edition of the newspaper was an actual collection of news clippings from other publications as well as Abbott's reporting.

 By 1916, The Chicago Defender’s circulation was 50,000 and it was considered one of the best African American newspapers in the United States. Within two years, the circulation had reached 125,000 and by the early 1920s, it was well over 200,000. 

From the outset, Abbott employed yellow journalistic tactics-sensational headlines and dramatic news accounts of African American communities. The paper’s tone was militant. Writers referred to African Americans, not as "black" or "negro" but as "the race." Graphic images of lynchings, assaults and other acts of violence against African Americans were published prominently in the paper. These images were not present to scare its readers, but rather, to shed light on lynchings and other acts of violence that African Americans endured throughout the United States. Through its coverage of the Red Summer of 1919, the publication used these race riots to campaign for anti-lynching legislation.

As an African American news publisher, Abbott’s mission was not only to print news stories, he had a nine-point mission that included:

  1. American race prejudice must be destroyed
  2. The opening up of all trade unions to Black as well as White people.
  3. Representation in the President's Cabinet
  4. Engineers, firemen, and conductors on all American railroads, and all jobs in government.
  5. Representation in all departments of the police forces over the entire United States
  6. Government schools open to all American citizens in preference to foreigners
  7. Motormen and conductors on surface, elevated and motor bus lines throughout America
  8. Federal legislation to abolish lynching.
  9. Full enfranchisement of all American citizens.

Abbott was a supporter of The Great Migration and wanted southern African Americans to escape the economic disadvantages and social injustice that plagued the South.

Writers such as Walter White and Langston Hughes served as columnists; Gwendolyn Brooks published one of her earliest poems in the pages of the publication.

The Chicago Defender and the Great Migration 

In an effort to push the Great Migration forward, Abbott held an event on May 15, 1917, called the Great Northern Drive. The Chicago Defender published train schedules and job listings in its advertising pages as well as editorials, cartoons, and news articles to persuade African Americans to relocate to northern cities. As a result of Abbott’s depictions of the North, The Chicago Defender became known as “the greatest stimulus that the migration had.” 

Once African Americans had reached northern cities, Abbott used the pages of the publication not only to show horrors of the South, but also the pleasantries of the North. 

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Your Citation
Lewis, Femi. "Robert Sengstacke Abbott: Publisher of "The Chicago Defender"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Lewis, Femi. (2020, August 25). Robert Sengstacke Abbott: Publisher of "The Chicago Defender". Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Robert Sengstacke Abbott: Publisher of "The Chicago Defender"." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).

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