Educate & Inspire

                                The Rise of Robert Sengstacke Abbott

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was an African American newspaper publisher who fought against social injustice by founding one of the most read Black newspapers in the United States, the Chicago Defender. The Chicago Defender was the most influential weekly paper in the country, with most readers coming from outside of Chicago. Abbot gave voice to Blacks who were fighting for full enfranchisement, racial equality, and the abolishment of lynching in the south during times of segregation in the early twentieth century. Abbott became one of the first Black millionaires from the success of his newspaper which had cost him an initial investment of 25 cents when he started publishing in 1905.

Early Life & Background

Abbott was born on November 24,1870 in St. Simons, Georgia to freedman parents, Flora and Thomas Abbot. Flora was a slave in Savannah around 1847. Her father was a skilled craftsman who bought the freedom of his family. Thomas was a slave butler to a plantation owner in St. Simons. After he fled to Savannah, he married Flora and had a child together. Unfortunately, Thomas died shortly after the infant Robert was born.

Flora married again to John Sengstacke, who was a biracial man who had recently come to the U.S. from Germany. John supported Flora in fighting for the custody of Robert and succeeded. Afterwards, John cared for Robert as if he were one of his own children.

One of Robert’s first jobs at eight years old had him running errands for a grocery store making 15 cents weekly. During his teenage years, he found an apprenticeship for a printer, fetching supplies and learning the business. As Abbott continued apprenticing, he helped his father launch a newspaper and was clear on pursuing printing as a trade. He enrolled in a couple different schools before settling in at Hampton Institute in Virginia in 1892.

Hampton Institute was a bumpy road for Abbott, as he faced prejudice regularly. He still

however, managed to be active in school, joining the Hampton Quartet. He had a great singing voice and the group further improved his confidence while in college. They toured around the nation including a stop in Chicago to perform at the World Columbian Exposition. After graduating in 1896, Abbott decided he would pursue a career in law, so he enrolled in Kent College of Law in Chicago. Two years later he graduated, as the only African American in his class. He quickly struggled to find a career as a lawyer traveling to both Indiana and Kansas. Abbott gave up on law completely and moved back to Chicago.

The main option Abbott had was to return to the printing industry. He bounced around between short-term printing jobs, some of them even had rules against hiring Blacks. The tasks were frustrating, and the pay was low. The money that he did make was unsustainable to make a living. There were student loans to pay, and rent was due, but Abbot also hardly ate and endured the struggle of living in Chicago.

The Making of The Chicago Defender

Abbott started to make the Chicago Defender after the death of his stepfather in 1904. He started printing copies in the kitchen of his landlord, Mrs. Lee who encouraged him to publish the paper. She strongly believed in Abbott and supported his dream by taking care of him while he struggled. Initially, 300 printed copies were produced, using a compilation of other local news articles and clippings by 1905. The investment of 25 cents was used to buy basic printing supplies and pencils. It was as large as a handbill and featured four pages and six columns.

Each week Abbott’s writing improved, as he scanned local areas in Chicago for news. A few years later he was still operating alone, but also wasn’t making a profit off The Defender. By 1908, he was selling over 1,000 copies per week and was slowly growing the newspaper
operation. The first employee of The Defender, J. Hockley Smiley was hired in 1910. Smiley would assist Abbott by attracting a national audience and used yellow journalism methods. By 1912, The Defender was finally available at concession stands but it still wouldn’t be the size of a full newspaper until three years later.

Abbott served as the newspaper’s editor, publisher, and manager while also handling sales and reporting duties. Every week The Defender evolved, and writers such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and Gwendolyn Brooks promoted the accomplishments of African American leaders. Black politicians were supported in the paper, which helped give African Americans a voice in politics. A sports page was created that exposed the racial discrimination that happened in major league baseball.

Influence of The Defender

The Defender banned terms like “Negro”, “black”, and “colored” in pages because they were degrading. African Americans were referred to as, “the Race”. Abbott listed nine goals of The Defender and referred to the following list as The Bible.

  1. America race prejudice must be destroyed
  2. Opening all trade unions to both Blacks and Whites
  3. Representation in the President’s Cabinet
  4. Hiring Blacks to all sorts of government jobs
  5. Gaining representation in all departments of the police force
  6. Getting rid of government school preference of American citizens over foreigners
  7. Hiring black motormen and conductors in America
  8. Abolish lynching
  9. Full enfranchisement of all American citizens

As a product of the North, The Defender had more freedom to address issues of inequality directly. Aggressive headlines, graphic photos, and bold colors were used to raise awareness on a national scale. The Defender showed assaults, lynching’s, and other forms of cruelty
against Blacks that sparked the emotions of readers. People around the nation were encouraged to fight for change and gave them a sense of pride and spirit.

In the South, The Defender was read extensively, although white distributors refused to carry it. Abbott used underground methods like running the paper through railroad porters to reach
Southern readers. It circulated quickly as it was read in public places such as barber shops, churches and restaurants, becoming the first Black newspaper to achieve

readership of over 100,000. Not to mention, The Defender was the first Black newspaper to feature a health
column and comics.

A single copy of The Defender was shared by Blacks frequently and its presence was felt throughout the South. This had a major contribution to the “Great Migration” movement, which inspired Blacks living in the brutality of white south to move up north. The Defender even listed train schedules with guidance of where to migrate to in the North. During World War I, there was a labor shortage and immigration faced restrictions. The Defender expressed hope for Blacks looking for industrial work in urban areas in the North with fair wages. Job listings were posted after factories were urgently hiring in the North. Each week, hundreds of African Americans crowded train stations hoping to find a better life outside of the South. Abbot was enthusiastic that the sudden exit of African Americans was harming the Southern economy.

Chicago was the “Promised Land” for struggling African Americans living in the South. Chicago appealed to many because of mail order houses, huge industrial areas, and an expansive railway system. By 1918 over 100,000 African Americans successfully migrated to the promising city. By 1925, over 500,000 migrated to the North in general. Abbott's mission was relentless, and his influence had his readers shifting north rapidly.



By 1940, Abbott’s nephew and heir, John H. Sengstacke took over the wildly successful newspaper. The Chicago Defender became The Chicago Daily Defender in 1956 and was the largest black owned daily newspaper in the entire world. John carried on the legacy of his uncle and published until his death in 1997.

 Although the Chicago Defender wasn’t the first black newspaper, it was the most popular and influential for many years. From a small kitchen, to the greatest black newspaper, The Defender was a major contributor for the Great Migration movement. The legendary paper spoke of racial injustice and fought to make a difference. It informed millions of people about the exploits going on during the Jim Crow Era, while empowering Blacks to find spirit and battle for change. It was Robert Sengestacke Abbott who had others laughing at his dream and fought to tear down his newspaper. The perseverance of Abbott sparked an entire movement with journalism, as he stimulated African Americans to want better for themselves and for their families.