The Chicago Defender: How a Black Owned Newspaper Fought for Racial Equality
White owned newspapers often ignored or downplayed racism. However, the Chicago Defender, a paper run by black people for black readers, turned the public spotlight on systemic discrimination against black workers and veterans.
Founded in 1905 by lawyer and newspaper publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the Chicago Defender was the most influential black newspaper of the early to the mid‐20th century.
The paper was birthed in a small kitchen apartment as a four‐page weekly with a 25 cent initial investment and a press run of just 300 copies. Early issues featured Chicago‐area news items along with clippings from other newspapers. Over the span of five short years, the publication spread to black communities across the nation. By 1929 it was selling more than 250,000 copies each week.
Under Abbott’s purview, the Defender employed a sensationalist approach in order to fuel circulation. News pieces covered examples of white oppression, lynchings, and other racial issues directly affecting black communities.1
In the book The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, author Ethan Michaeli explains how Defender founder Robert Abbott was inspired to launch the paper at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago after hearing speeches by the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass and courageous journalist Ida B. Wells. Michaeli notes that the Defender’s timely news coverage gave voice to silenced black Americans during the throes of Jim Crow, helped to fuel the Great Black Migration, and emboldened black voters throughout America.
During World War I, the Defender became a strong advocate for the equal treatment of black soldiers. It also featured articles contrasting the lives of Blacks in the urban North and rural South, complete with reports of Chicago’s reputation as a city of opportunity. The paper thus played a pivotal role in igniting the Great Migration, a freedom movement of millions of black Southerners who left for points North, Midwest, and West between World War I and the Great Depression. During the very early stages of this period, Chicago’s black population nearly tripled, ascending to around 109,458 by 1920. 2
As a Southern migrant himself, Robert Abbott was familiar with the prevailing rhetoric. He was a Republican at a time when the vast majority of Black Americans supported the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln. Politically astute and media savvy, Abbott had a knack for breaking down barriers with powerful white leaders on pressing civil rights issues like housing discrimination and jobs. 3
As Abbott’s reputation as a media icon and champion of Black free enterprise soared, he also built his financial fortune, reaching millionaire status and, in 1918, making the well‐publicized purchase of a mansion at 4847 Champlain Avenue in Chicago.
That same year he married Helen Thornton Morrison, who was 30 years his elder and a fair‐skinned black woman who could pass for white. Their wealth afforded them freedoms uncommon for blacks during that day, including regular attendance at the prestigious Chicago Opera. (4)
Abbott later divorced and remarried. In 1939, having been stricken by an illness, he relinquished control of the Defender to his nephew John Sengstacke before dying on February 29, 1940.
Turning The Editorial Leadership Page
John Herman Henry Sengstacke, the new editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender, was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1912. He joined the paper as Abbott’s assistant before rising to vice president and then general manager of the Robert S. Abbott Publishing Company.
Over the years, Sengstacke assembled an editorial conglomerate of black newspapers, including the Michigan Chronicle, LouisvilleDefender, Columbus News, St. Louis News, Toledo Press, and Cincinnati News. It became the largest black‐owned newspaper chain in U.S. history.
These papers played a prominent role in promoting freedom and justice among black Americans. As the trailblazer in this movement, the Defender advocated for the fair and equal treatment of black servicemen fighting in World War II, urging that the ranks of the armed services be integrated.
The courageous efforts of black military units such as the 24th Infantry Regiment were viewed by the Defender and other black newspapers as a source of pride as well as a moment of opportunity. While black Americans had participated in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War, they were never accorded the same treatment as their white counterparts. Military units were segregated and black soldiers were often relegated to secondary or non‐combat roles.
For years, the black press had championed the cause of integrating the armed forces. A crowning achievement came in 1948 when President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, mandating the desegregation of all military branches.
Black papers reported on the mistreatment of black soldiers during the early years of World War I. Their support for popular demands for safety, equal rights, and the recognition of black soldiers who fought in Europe led the U.S. government to threaten to indict African American publishers for sedition. However, Sengstacke, as the publisher of the Defender, stepped in and successfully negotiated a compromise with the Justice Department that protected the First Amendment rights of the black press. 5
The Defender also played a pivotal role in integrating professional baseball, drawing national attention to Jackie Robinson’s color barrier‐breaking move to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Furthermore, Sengstacke encouraged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to provide skilled and management positions for Blacks in the United States Postal Service, positions previously given only to white workers.
In addition, the Defender is credited with igniting black community and economic development on Chicago’s South Side where its publishing offices had been located for decades. In the vibrant neighborhood known as “Bronzeville,” newspaper offices long sat at the nexus of black churches, businesses, entertainment venues, and private residences that dot the area.
With Sengstacke’s death in 1997, TheDefender’s national influence and circulation slumped. In 2003 the newspaper was purchased by Real Times, a company with family ties to one of Sengstacke’s relatives. Five years later it became a weekly publication. Today it is a digital publication only.
By promoting liberty and racial equality, the Defender has left a lasting legacy for millions of blacks. Ultimately, it is a story of perseverance amidst a long historical backdrop of racism and discrimination in America. It demonstrates the need for First Amendment protections, the power of black media as a liberating force against discrimination, and the ability of black‐owned businesses to serve, educate, and uplifte black audiences.