Profiles in Black History: Robert Sengstacke Abbott

Posted by on Feb 18, 2021 in People and Culture

This week btw continues to celebrate Black History Month by focusing on the lives and accomplishments of Black Americans whom you may not have heard much about. Robert Sengstacke Abbott was a lawyer and one of the first African American millionaires, but his most significant contribution was founding the Chicago Defender, one of the most-read African American newspapers in the United States.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s Early Life

Abbott was born in Georgia in 1868. His father and his grandparents were enslaved persons. His father died of tuberculosis when Abbott was still a baby, and his mother remarried when he was five years old. As a boy of eight or nine years old, Abbott worked as a grocery store errand boy, and as a teenager he worked as a printer’s apprentice. At 18 years old, he applied to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, and while he waited to be accepted, he helped his stepfather launch a local newspaper called the Woodville Times. After his college graduation, Abbott moved to Chicago. There, he applied to the Kent College of Law. Abbott graduated from Kent College in 1898, but since he was African American, he was unable to practice law. Instead, he tried to open a school with his sister, but this didn’t work out either. Finally, at the age of 37, he decided to launch the Chicago Defender newspaper which was to become his life’s work and his greatest accomplishment.

What Was the Chicago Defender?

Folded Newspaper
Robert Abbott was famous for his newspaper publishing empire. Credit: Getty Images

The first issue of the Chicago Defender came out on May 5, 1905. It was only four pages long and sold for two cents. The first printing was just 300 issues, but Abbott sold them all. Each week, the quality of the publication improved. By 1912, the Defender had become available at newsstands. Abbott’s opposition to racism and his insistence on African American pride and racial equity eventually grew the paper to a circulation of more than 200,000 people by the early 1920s. This made it the most widely read African American publication in the country. In addition to its focus on African American pride and fierce resistance to racial injustice, it also helped launch the literary careers of such greats as Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes by publishing their early work.

Launching a Movement

In May 1917, just weeks after the United States entered World War I, Abbott used his paper to launch a campaign that he called “The Great Northern Drive,” encouraging African Americans in the South to move north to seek a better life for themselves. Abbott’s words contributed to the Great Migration–a movement of nearly one million people to the north. Because of this, the Defender was banned in many Southern towns. Abbott relied on African American railroad porters to help distribute the paper to readers in the South. Readership continued to grow as a result, to more than 230,000 copies a week nationally by 1920. And by the mid-1920s, Abbott became one of the first African American millionaires in the United States. Abbott was married twice but had no children. He died in 1940 at the age of 71 from tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his father seven decades earlier. Abbott is regarded as the father of African American journalism. His funeral was attended by some of the most prominent citizens in Chicago.

Dig Deeper Search the Internet  to find out what the Defender looks like today by exploring a recent issue. Write a paragraph describing what you learn from your investigation.