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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 09: Copies of the Chicago Defender are shown on July 09, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The newspaper, founded in 1905 to serve the city's black community, is schedule to print its final edition tomorrow, becoming yet another publication to publish a digital-only format. The Defender is credited with playing an important role in promoting the migration of African Americans from the rural South to industrial cities in the North during the first half of the 20th century. Copies of the newspaper were carried and distributed by porters working on trains and travelling into these southern communities. (Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Happy Black History Month! This is the eighth blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Robert Sengstacke Abbott, attorney and founder of The Chicago Defender who became one of the first self-made Black millionaires in the country.

This is his story.

Georgia Native

According to georgiaencyclopedia.org, Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in 1868 as the son of formerly enslaved parents. Right after he was born, Abbott’s father died of leukemia and his father’s family sued his mother for custody. Around this time, his mother met a Congregationalist minister/teacher named John H.H. Sengstacke who helped to support her in the custody battle. Eventually, they married and Abbott grew up with Sengstacke as his stepfather. From him, Abbott grew a passion for equality.

Dreams of Becoming A Lawyer

With this passion, Abbott attended Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, and studied printing. After graduating in 1896, he moved to Chicago where he would earn a law degree at Kent College of Law. With dreams of becoming an attorney, Abbott applied to work at law firms, but experienced much discrimination, leaving him without a job. Eventually, Abbott decided he could serve people better through print than he could in a courtroom.

Found The Chicago Defender

This led to his creation of The Chicago Defender in 1905. Abbott wanted his newspaper to focus on several key things including editorials pushing for equality, reports on happenings in Chicago’s Black community, coverage of the racial brutalities of the South, and opportunities for employment. Within a decade, The Chicago Defender dominated the Black community’s press and by the 1920s, readership was up near 200,000 people nationwide. The newspaper featured many infamous Black writers such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Influence on The Great Migration

Once established, The Chicago Defender played a vital role in the Great Migration, a time right after World War I when countless Black folks moved to the more urban areas of the North in order to escape the hardships of the South. Abbott’s newspaper advertised job opportunities of the North, while simultaneously covering the brutalities of the South. Abbott also managed to get railroad porters to carry and distribute copies of the Defender to the South. Ultimately, in 1917, over a million Black folks picked up their entire lives and moved north with around 100,000 people moving to Chicago.

Legacy

Abbott passed from Bright’s disease, a type of kidney condition, on February 29th, 1940. After his passing, running The Chicago Defender became the responsibility of Abbott’s nephew, John H. Sengstacke III. Where Abbott lived in Chicago off of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is now a historical building and museum. According to georgiaencyclopedia.org, Abbott, for many people, has gone down in history as what Langston Hughes called him: “the journalistic voice of a largely voiceless people.” Read more about Robert Sengstacke Abbott here or here.

Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.