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African Americans in Chicago

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Robert S. Abbott, John H. Sengstacke and the Chicago Defender (Wikimedia Commons)

Business-savvy Robert S. Abbott and his successor in 1940, nephew John H. Sengstacke, succeeded in shaping newspaper publishing as no other African Americans had done previously. As successive publishers of the increasingly influential and profitable Chicago Defender newspaper, Abbott and Sengstacke demonstrated that they were men who fully understood the nexus between the newspaper and its role as a channel of African American racial representation and cultural achievement. Abbott initially attempted a career in law, but circumstances dictated he choose another path to success, so in 1905, he founded the Defender on an investment of twenty-five cents. Sociologist Charles S. Johnson described Abbott's accomplishment: "Here [in Chicago] also is the home of the world's greatest weekly – with a circulation of more than a hundred thousand and a plant valued at as many dollars. When Abbott demonstrated, however, the possibility of the newspaper that would cater to the wants of the Negro people in publishing news concerning them and in a way that they could understand and appreciate it, the publications changed their methods and imitated Abbott." Besides the Defender, he also began publishing Abbott's Monthly during the 1930s which became a forerunner to Johnson Publishing Company's, Ebony. Roi Ottley analyzed him as "thoroughly a Negro himself, that everything he said and did was a reflection of the mass mind." He often spoke of his affinity for "the masses and not the [higher] classes." His intense passion for racial advancement proved unrelenting. He influenced the Great Migration of 1916–1919 as well as expanded black advancement after the Riot of 1919. By the early 1920s, Abbott purchased a sumptuous structure designed in the Queen Anne style and described as "baronial" at a cost of $50,000. His home was located in the Grand Boulevard Community at 4742 on fashionable South Park Way (now King Drive and pictured above). The mansion was the setting of social meetings with nearly every person of social and civic prominence in the Black Metropolis as well a salon for aspiring writers. With his death in 1940, and being childless, the major heir to Abbott's publishing empire was his nephew, John H.H. Sengstacke who continued to champion for full equality. Notably during World War Two, he actively pursued a "Double V," which continued during the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s. Consistent with family tradition, Sengstacke founded and became the first president of the National Negro Publishers Association in 1940 (now the National Newspaper Publishers Association) and in 1956, the Defender became the Chicago Daily Defender, the largest black-owned daily in the world. In 1965 Sengstacke purchased the Pittsburgh Courier, and later expansion into neighboring states. John Sengtstacke served as publisher until his death in May 1997.

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