Robert Sengstacke Abbott was a prominent publisher and founder of the Chicago Defender. Abbott became a self-made millionaire who advocated for racial equality through journalism.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born to parents Thomas Abbott and Flora Butler. Abbott’s father died when he was an infant. His mother married John H. H. Sengstacke. His father was the founder of Sengstacke Academy and publisher of two newspapers.
In 1889 Abbott enrolled in a printing trade program at Hampton Institute in Virginia. Abbott graduated from Hampton Institute in 1896 and Kent College in Chicago, earning his L.L.B in 1899. Abbott was also a member of the Hampton Quartet.
Abbott practiced law in Topeka, KS, and Gary, IN, before returning to Chicago in 1903.
THE CHICAGO DEFENDER
Robert Sengstacke Abbott realized the color of his skin was a roadblock in the area of law. He decided to change his career to enter the newspaper business. Abbott began selling the first issue of the Chicago Defender with an investment of 25 cents. The newspaper highlighted better opportunities for black southerners to migrate to the North. Between 1916 and 1918, over 110,000 migrated to Chicago. The Chicago Defender never used the words “Negro” or “black” in its pages. African Americans were called “the Race,” and black men and women were “Race men and Race women.”
White businesses refused to carry the Chicago Defender. Pullman Porters delivered the newspapers along their routes to various southern stops. The Chicago Defender provided coverage of the eruption of the Chicago Riot of 1919. Eugene Williams crossed an invisible line on a raft at a segregated beach on 29th & Lake Shore Drive. White beachgoers threw rocks and resulted in Williams drowning. Williams’ death resulted in eight days of violence. When the riot ended, 15 white and 23 black people died, 500 injured, and 1,000 black residents’ homes destroyed.
The Chicago Defender’s circulation was over 250,000 and drew around 130,000 readers. At its peak, the Chicago Defender was the largest black-owned newspaper in the nation. Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded The Bud Billiken Parade in 1929. It is the largest African American parade in the United States. The parade emphasizes the importance of education as children return to school.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott died on February 28, 1940, at the age of 69, and buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Alsip, IL.
The Chicago Defender Building became a Chicago landmark in 1998. In 1976, Abbott’s home received National Historic Landmark status. There is a historical marker in Garden City, GA, and an honorary street name in Chicago.
Tammy Gibson is a travel historian, author, and writer. Find her at Facebook, Instagram @SankofaTravelher, and Twitter @SankofaTravelHr