John Sengstacke

A genius. A man with great business acumen. Someone who consistently took care of the community. A vanguard of change. That’s how many remember the late John Sengstacke, nephew of Chicago Defender founder Robert Abbott.

A genius. A man with great business acumen. Someone who consistently took care of the community. A vanguard of change. That’s how many remember the late John Sengstacke, nephew of Chicago Defender founder Robert Abbott.

John Herman Henry Sengstacke, was born Nov. 25, 1912 in Savannah, Georgia. He was groomed by his uncle to take over the business and succeeded him 51 years after the Defender was founded in 1905.

The Defender was the first Black newspaper to boast a circulation over 250,000, thanks to the Pullman Porters who secretly distributed the paper south of the Mason-Dixon line. By the start of World War I, the paper was the nation’s most influential Black weekly, tackling issues of racial injustice, anti-lynching campaigns, integrated sports and armed forces. It also facilitated The Great Migration from the South.

Sengstacke worked with several U.S. Presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. His work with Roosevelt secured a spot in the White House for Defender reporter, the late Ethel Payne, and helped create jobs for Blacks with the United States Postal Service. Truman tapped Sengstacke to serve on his commission to integrate the military, according to his son, Bobby Sengstacke.

During his tenure, he strengthened the paper and the Black Press by founding the National Newspaper Publishers Association and Amalgamated Publishers Inc.

NNPA, a media organization for Black-owned newspapers, currently has more than 200 papers on its roster. API was the advertising arm of the Black Press, and was housed inside the Defender’s building on 24th Street and Michigan Avenue.

When Sengstacke took over, he moved the paper from 34th Street and Michigan Avenue to 2400 S. Michigan Ave. and began publishing the paper daily.

“The Defender had a national edition that had powerful influence. We focused on issues plaguing our community. He wanted to broaden that power and influence by making it daily,” said his son, Bobby Sengstacke, who said his father also shared his circulation list with the late John Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines.

He then recalled a comment the late journalist and Defender columnist Vernon Jarrett said about the paper shifting to a daily publication schedule.

In addition to the power and influence the paper would continue to build upon, “he started a daily newspaper to compete with the white folks,” said Jarrett, according to Bobby Sengstacke.

The paper returned as the “World’s Greatest Weekly” in February 2008.

When the Defender started, advertising was seemingly non-existent. Sengstacke found a way to build the paper’s advertising base, in addition to the other papers he owned and were part of the NNPA, the son said.

That advertising base couldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Amalgamated Publishers, according to Rod Doss, editor and publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier.

Sengstacke bought the Courier in 1966 and became one of the many papers owned by Sengstacke Newspapers, now Real Times Media Inc.

“He forged the group (API) to allow advertising to sustain in the Black Press. If it wasn’t for his leadership, the Black Press would have had a less effective singular voice instead of a unified voice. I’m very fortunate to have been exposed to his leadership, business acumen and historic legacy. He was an innovator,” said Doss.

Survival of the Black Press, particularly papers owned by Sengstacke, hinged on one thing, cultivating a relationship with the community, he stressed to his family and publishers of his other papers.

The Michigan Chronicle, another Sengstacke paper, heeded that message.

“The most important thing I remember him saying to me after he learned I was going to replace (the late) Longworth Quinn as publisher was, ‘As long a you live, do everything humanly possible to take care of the community we serve, and they’ll take care of you.’ There’s truth to that. I always remember that and that’s how we’ve been able to survive. He was smart. He was a survivor,” said Samuel Logan, publisher of the Michigan Chronicle.

Charles Davis worked under Sengstacke’s administration and recalled his boss as a “private man” and an “inspiration.”

“He was fair and did a great job continuing his uncle’s legacy. He also had access to top leaders in government,” said Davis who served as a reporter, city editor, director of public relations and director of advertising during his time with the Defender.

When reflecting on the legacy of the Defender started by Abbott and continued with Sengstacke, Chicago historian Timuel Black said there was no other paper that gave Blacks from all over access to their own community.

The paper was a staple in the Black’s “Old Black Belt,” now-Bronzeville home. He became a paperboy for the Defender before he hit a double-digit age and never strayed away, he said.

“It was always respected and everyone read it. It was delivered to the Army camps I served in overseas –– Europe, Normandy and Germany –– from 1944 to 1945. It gave us access to our community. It promoted our music such as Duke Ellington; sports such as the Harlem Globetrotters and Negro Baseball Leag
ue; and the armed forces, including the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Black.

The retired Rev. Clay Evans of Fellowship M.B. Church, a well-known community activist in his heyday, spoke about the Defender’s legacy.

“With the changes that were taking place in the community, like the civil rights movement in the South and in Chicago and the race riots, the Defender gave us the flavor that noone else could. It had real contact with the community and played a major role in us getting the side of the story that we could relate to,” said Evans.

Sengstacke died in May 1997. Nearly four years later, President William Clinton posthumously presented him with the Presidential Citizens Medal.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender


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