|| A LEARNING MOMENT ||
On this day, May 5, in 1905, Georgia born Robert Sengstacke Abbott printed the first edition of what would become the most widely read African-American newspaper in the country — The Chicago Defender.
It wasn’t the first African-American newspaper, but it was definitely the most influential.
In fact, it is credited with starting The Great Migration; the migration of about 5 million African-Americans from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1960.
Abbott attended Hampton Institute where he studied printing, and then law at Kent College of Law, but couldn’t make a decent living as an attorney.
In 1905 he printed the first editions of The Chicago Defender in his room in a boarding house and, encouraged by his landlady, he sold copies door-to-door.
Slowly he started gaining both readers and advertisers for the weekly paper, but it wasn’t until 1910 that he was able to hire his first full time employee, J. Hockley Smiley.
Abbott‘s big break came soon after when he convinced Pullman Porters to take papers with them on their trips to the South.
Soon African-Americans around the country were reading The Chicago Defender.
Only in The Defender they weren’t called African-Americans. Nor were they called Negroes or Colored.
In The Chicago Defender we were called The Race — our men were called ‘Race men’ and our women ‘Race women.’
And The Race was certainly gobbling up his papers nationwide. Even people who couldn’t read were buying the paper, because to have an issue in the home was considered a symbol of good breeding.
By 1916, only eleven years after its inception, The Chicago Defender had a circulation of 50,000.
And it also had a defined mission or goals that Abbott said he considered the paper’s Bible:
1. American race prejudice must be destroyed; States;
6. Government schools giving preference to American citizens before foreigners;
2. Opening up all trade unions to blacks as well as whites;
3. Representation in the President's Cabinet'
4. Hiring black engineers, firemen, and conductors on all American railroads, and to all jobs in government;
5. Gaining representation in all departments of the police forces over the entire United
7. Hiring black motormen and conductors on surface, elevated, and motor bus lines throughout America;
8. Federal legislation to abolish lynching; and
9. Full enfranchisement of all American citizens
Abbott began encouraging Blacks to move from the Jim Crow South to the more liberal North. Jobs, he wrote, were abundant, housing was plentiful, and you didn’t have to move off the sidewalk if a white woman was walking along it. He railed against lynching and unlawful imprisonments which were nothing but a return to slavery.
He even began publishing a poem that included the stanzas:
No Cracker to seduce your sister
Nor hang you to a limb
And you’re not obliged to call to ‘mister’
Or show your teeth to them
(For those interested, I will type out entire poem, but I’m on a time-crunch now to get this finished by 10 PM. I didn’t get started until 8:30 PM.)
Then he even started publishing train schedules so The Race could find it easier to make the move from The South to the North.
And they did. So much so that some southern cities banned the sale of The Chicago Defender.
Inevitably, Abbott soon became a millionaire, and to thank the landlady who back in 1905 allowed him to use a room in her boardinghouse to print his papers he bought her an 8-room home.
Abbott died in 1940, and his heir and nephew, John Sengstacke, took the helm of the paper. (Abbott had noted his interest in printing early on, and paid for his nephew’s education.) Sengstacke was just as fervent about racial issues as his uncle and when Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 it was The Defender that first published the story, and the horrific picture that brought the hideous crime to national attention.
In 1956 Sengstacke changed the paper from a weekly to a daily, and the name to The Chicago Daily Defender, but it resumed weekly publication in 2003. Sengstacke remained publisher of the paper until his death in 1997.
Though no longer family-owned, The Chicago Defender is still published every Wednesday.