May 6, 1905 – First Issue of the Chicago Defender, which became America’s Most Influential Black Weekly Newspaper

The Chicago Defender is a Chicago-based African-American newspaper (and now online) founded by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, an American lawyer, newspaper publisher and editor. The Chicago Defender grew to have the highest circulation of any black-owned newspaper in the country.

PBS describes how Abbott began his journalistic enterprise with an initial investment of 25 cents, a press run of 300 copies, and worked out of a small kitchen in his landlord’s apartment. The first issues of The Defender were just four-pages, and were filled with local news items gathered by Abbott and clippings from other newspapers.

Portrait of Robert Sengstacke Abbott
The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke via Getty Images

In 1910 Abbott hired his first full-time paid employee, and with his help The Defender began to attract a national audience and to address issues of national scope. The newspaper reported on and campaigned against Jim Crow era violence and urged black people in the American South to move north in what became the Great Migration. Sensationalistic headlines, graphic images, and red ink were utilized to capture the reader’s attention and convey the horrors of lynchings, rapes, assaults, and other atrocities affecting black Americans. The paper’s slogan was “American race prejudice must be destroyed.”

The Chicago Defender, the iconic black newspaper founded by Robert S. Abbott (right), will now be published online only. Photograph by Gordon Coster / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

A key part of his distribution network was made up of African-American railroad porters, who were highly respected among blacks. They often sold or distributed the paper on trains. Defender circulation reached 50,000 by 1916; 125,000 by 1918; and more than 200,000 by the early 1920s. As The Defender became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country, it became known as “America’s Black Newspaper.” Its success resulted in Abbott becoming one of the first self-made millionaires of African-American descent; his business expanded as African Americans moved to the cities and became an urbanized, northern population. From the early 20th century through 1940, 1.5 million blacks moved to major cities in the North and Midwest.

Brent Staples of The New York Times, reviewing Ethan Michaeli’s history of The Defender, reports:

The Defender had already achieved national reach by the late teens and was far and away the most important publication in the colored press. Abbott was leading the way toward an indictment of military segregation, but came under federal pressure when the head of the Military Intelligence Bureau named The Defender ‘the most dangerous of all Negro journals.’”

In 1940, Abbott died and his nephew John H. Sengstacke succeeded him. Sengstacke convinced the most powerful black papers that they could better advance their goals by speaking as one voice through an organization of his devising — the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association. He served as its first president.

A newsboy selling the Chicago Defender, April 1942.
Jack Delano/Library Of Congress via Getty Images

The book review in the Times relates a great story:

Things stood thus in 1942, when Sengstacke traveled to Washington to meet with Attorney General Francis Biddle. . . . Biddle said that the black papers were flirting with sedition and threatened to ‘shut them all up.’ Sengstacke responded that the papers were within their rights and that because they had urged African-Americans to support the war, they had an obligation to tell those readers about federal policies that showed contempt for them. He then added: ‘You have the power to close us down. So if you want to close us, go ahead and attempt it.’

Biddle was stunned. He must have seen that shutting down the papers would entail a public fight and perhaps even riots in the streets. His tone changed from hostile to solicitous when Sengstacke complained about being unable to reach federal officials with reporting questions. Doors that had been closed began to open. In 1944, Roosevelt, who had kept his distance since taking office, invited the Negro press barons to the White House and turned on that thousand-watt smile. Three days afterward, the first Negro press reporter started work in the White House press corps.”

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