“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us in things which concern us dearly.” When Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm wrote those words on the front page of their Freedom’s Journal newspaper 181 years ago, they were sta
They reasoned that the cause of Black people in America was best articulated by Black people, and the stories that concerned Black people in America were best told by Black people. After all that time, and all the progress Black people have made in this country, we still need to plead our own cause. That is why the Chicago Defender exists.
I took a trip over to the Southside Community Art Center the other day for a reception unveiling the Chicago Defender’s Journey To Empowerment photo exhibit for Black History Month. It is a great event, if I say so myself, as one of the hosts. As I walked through the exhibit, looking at the photos from the Defender archives, I found myself marveling at the history that was represented there.
I knew the photos on display were just the tip of the iceberg of our archive’s volumes and volumes of photos and articles. It is that history %uFFFD that 102 years of chronicling the lives of Black people both here in Chicago and around the world %uFFFD that drew me to the Chicago Defender.
This year our photo display features some of those business leaders who have made Chicago a destination city for so many Blacks. First and foremost, of course, are photos of Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who founded this newspaper in 1905 with the recognition that the growing Black population of Chicago needed to hear news about their community written by members of that community.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked 28 years in journalism, and most of them within the Black Press. I’ve worked at Black publications in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago and New York City, and I have spent the bulk of my career adding to the trove of Black history.
While Carter G. Woodson first came up with the idea of setting aside a period of time to celebrate Black History, he did so because in most of America it was ignored. History books in America’s classrooms had little mention of the contributions of Black Americans. Even less was written about the contributions of Blacks before they became Americans.
Woodson’s idea became Black History Week and then Month. Unfortunately, years later, Black History is still largely ignored, except for February, Black History Month. That helped to usher in more inclusion, and an annual paroxysm of Booker T. Carver and George Washington Douglass and Frederick Luther King. The same names were unearthed for that second month of the year, and, at the end of the month, returned to the vaults, like one of those Disney movies, until next year.
But history, including the history of Black people, is not a stagnant thing. It is at once constant and continuing. It is growing every day, every hour and every minute. New discoveries from our past are added to new accomplishments of our present to make a living institution. Chicago is a crucible of that history.
With the large Black population here – a population that grew exponentially because Robert S. Abbott put out the call in this newspaper for Blacks in the South to come North to jobs and opportunity – much of the history of the nation originates here.
And it is a history that keeps growing: two Black U.S. senators, a Black mayor, one of the first Blacks in Congress, perhaps soon the first Black nominee for president of the United States and, next January, the first Black president.
Yes, we still celebrate Black History Month. There are wonderful stories portrayed during February with wonderful specials and tremendous events commemorating the occurrence. Small children reciting Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech from memory still brings tears to my eyes. Working within the Black Press, I have been allowed to actually see Black history, everyday, and participate in it. That is what the Chicago Defender represents.
It IS Black history.
It IS history.
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