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The Defender of Black News and Racial Freedom
Revisiting Robert Abbott’s Astonishing Story
Very few people know the name Robert Sengstacke Abbott. Sadly, I only learned about Abbott in recent years thanks to the work of Ethan Michaeli, award winning journalist, university lecturer and author of the book The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.
So who is Robert Abbott? He was a prominent 20th century publisher and founder of the Chicago Defender, arguably America’s most prominent Black newspaper. As a result of his tireless work as an advocate for racial equality through journalism, Abbott became a self-made millionaire.
Abbott was born in November of 1868 in Frederica, St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, the second child of Thomas Abbott and Flora Butler Abbott. Thomas and his family had been among the slaves owned by Captain Charles Stevens, whose plantation was on St. Simon’s Island.
In the book The Defender, author Ethan Michaeli notes:
“More than in most places, St. Simon’s black inhabitants maintained a strong connection to the African continent by speaking Gullah, a language incorporating vocabulary and grammar from several West African languages as well as English. His parent’s home was near Ibo Landing, a place that figures in a legend about a shipload of new slaves who jumped into the water wearing their chains, drowning themselves to escape further abuse onshore. Today their ghosts are said to be visible in the ocean’s turbulent waves, their songs heard in the breeze blowing through the trees.”
With Abbott’s father having died when he was 4, his mother Flora moved back to her own mother’s apartment in Savannah. It was there where she built a friendship with her new landlord, John Herman Henry Sengstacke, whom she later married. In 1876, when Robert was a mere seven years old, Sengstacke, who had legally adopted Robert, was ordained a minister in the Congregational Church. Says Michaeli in the book:
“By far the greatest influence on Robert, however, was his beloved stepfather. As the eldest child in a rapidly growing band of siblings, Robert accompanied his stepfather as he traveled around the area, lecturing to the poor farmers about hygiene, science, and culture, and to the county court, where the Reverend John Sengstacke often acted as informal counsel for African Americans facing charges. A dedicated Republican who paid his poll taxes without protest, Sengstacke was quiet, frugal, and abstemious, while in the pulpit he was a “book preacher,” who, in a community where many were illiterate, often read to a congregation from the newspaper.”
Robert Abbott’s early interest in the printing industry commenced as a result of a stint with a small newspaper. He later enrolled in the trade program at Hampton Institute, finishing a printer’s course four years later, before completing a bachelor’s degree in 1896. While at Hampton, long known as one of America’s prominent historical Black colleges, Abbott, a concert tenor, sang in the Hampton Quartet.
After his college matriculation, he moved to Chicago, a city where he had the opportunity to sing with the Hampton College Quartet at the infamous World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Despite having attended and graduated from Kent College (now Chicago- Kent College of Law) in 1898, Abbott faced racial barriers that severely hampered his ability to practice in the city. After brief stints as a lawyer in Gary, Indiana and Topeka, Kansas, he returned to Chicago in 1903.
Regarding Abbott’s experience at Chicago’s World’s Fair, Michaeli adds:
“Among those listening was the future founder of the Chicago Defender, who would remember every word. Then in his early twenties and a student at the Hampton Institute of Virginia, Robert Abbott had come to the World’s Fair to sing tenor with the Hampton Quartet. Already absorbed by “the plight of my people” he was both radicalized and urbanized by the experience. What he saw in Chicago that summer convinced him that the city was the perfect place to realize his dreams.”
“Another African American leader who Abbott met at the Chicago fair was Ida B. Wells, a fearless, confrontational investigator and journalist who, though just a few years older than Abbott, had already established herself as a leading spokesperson against lynching and segregation.”
With skin color having been an impediment to his career, Abbott decided to enter the newspaper world by launching the Chicago Defender in 1905. On May 6th in a small kitchen apartment with an initial press run of 300 copies, he began by selling door-to-door in Chicago’s rapidly growing Black community. The inaugural issues featured Chicago-area news pieces along with relevant news items from other newspapers and periodicals.
Describing that first edition, Michaeli in his book adds:
“The bill for the first edition printing was $13.70, a sum Abbott raised through the pennies collected from the sales of individual copies as well as from advertising. Page 4 of the September 1905 issue is taken up by thirty-seven ads of varying sizes, from a butcher, a lawyer, a doctor, an undertaker, two tailors, and a moving man, as well as hotels, barbershops, nightclubs, and a candy store.”
Over the course of five years, the publication saw a meteoric growth in readership, a rise that led to its distinction as the most influential Black newspaper at that time in the nation. With the support of J. Hockley Smiley, the publication’s first full-time employee, The Defender became a key accelerant for racial advancement, actively championing the migration of Black Southerners to Northern cities like Chicago.
While Abbott initially rented an office for the editorial and printing of the publication, an uncertain financial landscape led to him renting a new place from a woman named Henrietta Lee at 3159 State Street in Chicago. Eager to support Abbott in his cause, Lee generously allowed him to use the dining room and kitchen. In later years, Abbott in time returned this kind gesture by purchasing an eight-story house for her.
Under Abbott’s careful eye, the Defender used a sensationalist media approach to fuel circulation. News pieces covered a gamut of issues tied to white oppressions, labor strikes, lynchings, Black migration from the South and other racial issues impacting Black communities.
The newspaper was an early catalyst for a number of literary careers, most notably that of the playwright Gwendolyn Brooks who at 17 began submitting her work to "Lights and Shadows," the newspaper’s poetry column. Over time she published nearly a hundred poems there.
There was also the writer Willard Motley who published a Chicago Defender column under the pen-name Bud Billiken. He later launched and published the Hull House Magazine and worked for the Federal Writers Project. And then there was the incomparable Langston Hughes who became one of the Harlem Renaissance's most celebrated poets, who once worked as a columnist for the paper.
With the Defender’s readership soaring, Abbott decided to utilize the periodical to further fuel interest among Black Southerners in leaving the Jim Crow South to migrate North. The paper published an array of news articles and editorials highlighting the “Exodus,” as a part of the historic Great Migration.
Abbott was a fearless fighter against segregation while also opposing Black Nationalism. He was a thorn in the side of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement and Universal Negro Improvement Association, calling for the U.S. Attorney General to “vigorously and speedily push the government’s case against Marcus Garvey for using the mail to defraud.”
With the soaring success of the Defender having made Abbott a millionaire, on May 28, 1918, he purchased a mansion at 4847 Champlain Avenue in Chicago. Around that time period, approaching nearly 50 years old, he married Helen Thornton Morrison, a widow. In 1923, the couple traveled to South America; on their return, Abbott highlighted Brazil’s relative commitment to racial equality in the pages of the Defender. He sounded a similar refrain when he and his wife toured Europe a few years later.
Abbott purchased a new home in 1926 at 4742 S. Martin Luther King Drive, Chicago. It is now a historic landmark known as Robert S. Abbott House. Unfortunately, in ensuing years, Abbott’s marriage to Helen took a downward spiral, ending in a bitter and highly publicized divorce in 1933. In August, 1934, he got re-married to Edna Brown Denison, a 43-year-old widow who had four grown children.
He served as a board member of the Wabash Avenue YMCA and Chicago Urban League, was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, and had a stint as national executive president of the Hampton Alumni Association. Having been raised as a Congregationalist, Abbott joined the Episcopal Church and later the Presbyterian Church. Frustrated with racial culture embedded in both, he became a member of the Baha’i’ Faith in the later years, embracing the religion’s commitment to racial unity and equality.
In 1939, facing Bright’s Disease, an affliction of the kidneys, Abbott relinquished control of the Defender to his nephew John Sengstacke. He died on February 29, 1940 at the age of 69 and is buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.
Michaeli’s book The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America is a robust read that exquisitely captures Robert Abbott’s inspiring rise as a newspaper mogul and race advocate. Over time, the Defender’s deep reporting and news coverage was an emancipatory call to Black Americans thrust into the throes of Jim Crow, to assert their constitutional rights in overcoming the pernicious barriers of freedom they faced.
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