Robert Sengstacke Abbott

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Robert S. Abbott (1870-1940) was founder, in 1905, of The Chicago Defender, which became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country and made Abbott one of the first self-made millionaires of African American descent.

Abbott was born in 1870 in Frederica, St. Simons Island, Georgia the son of former slave parents. Abbott studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute in Virginia from 1892 to 1896. While he was a student at Hampton he had the opportunity to study under Booker T. Washington. Abbott moved to Chicago in 1897 and began working odd jobs while earning a law degree at Kent College of Law (now Chicago-Kent College of Law). He went on to graduate from Kent Law School in 1898, but because of racial prejudice in the United States, Abbott was unable to practice law. Despite Abbott’s multiple attempts to establish law offices in Gary, Indiana, Topeka, Kansas, and Chicago, Illinois the prevalence of racism prevented him from ever practicing law.

The Chicago Defender

In May 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender with an initial investment of 25 cents. In the paper’s early years Abbott sold his four-page newspaper subscriptions by going door to door and standing on Chicago’s South Side street corners. Through his newspaper, The Defender, Abbott encouraged southern African Americans to leave the virulently racist South and seek a haven in the northern cities, particularly Chicago. Because it was a Northern paper, The Defender had more freedom to denounce racist issues outright, and its editorial position was militant, attacking racial inequities head-on. Sensationalistic headlines, graphic images, and red ink were utilized to capture the reader's attention and convey the horrors of lynchings, rapes, assaults, and other atrocities affecting African Americans. The newspaper was read extensively in the South. Black Pullman porters and entertainers were used to distribute the paper across the Mason/Dixon line. The paper had to be smuggled into the South because white distributors refused to circulate it and many groups such as the Ku Klux Klan tried to confiscate it or threatened its readers with violence.

The Defender became a national newspaper with a circulation of 250,000 in 1929. Abbott's editorials demanded full equality for African Americans. The Defender fought for social justice, political and economic equality and it attacked rampant discrimination, segregation, and lynching in the South. The Defender did not use the words "Negro" or "black" in its pages. Instead, African Americans were referred to as "the Race" and black men and women as "Race men" and "Race women." The newspaper was credited with encouraging the migration from the South by providing information about job opportunities in the North during World War I. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved North because of his newspaper. Because of Abbott, The Defender became a thriving national institution. One of the nations largest and most influential Black newspapers, it was one of only two that was published on a daily basis out of 350 African American-owned newspapers in 1966.

The Defender became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country and made Abbott one of the first self-made millionaires of African American descent. From 1926 until his death in 1940, Abbott was the most successful African American publisher of his era. Robert Sengstacke Abbott died of Bright's disease on February 29, 1940, and left the paper in the control of his heir and nephew, John Henry Sengstacke.

References

  • Ottley, Roi. The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott. Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1955.