The first edition of The Chicago Defender, a run of three hundred papers, went on sale May 5, 1905. For two cents, readers received six columns of text on four full pages. It was a humble beginning for one of America’s most storied newspapers.
That isn’t the half of it. According to the tale laid out in Ethan Michaeli’s The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, the paper’s beginning wasn’t so much humble as precarious–alarmingly so. The Defender was the brainchild of Robert Abbott who published it out of the dining room of his landlady, Henrietta Lee. The indefatigable Mrs. Lee provided staunch support for Abbott in all sorts of ways, including meals, nursing, and small loans. Her teenage daughter, Genevieve, did clerical work. A Pullman waiter, Fay Young, made a vital editorial contribution by collecting discarded newspapers from the dining car and bringing them back to Abbott. Over Lee’s dining room table, the two would scan the papers for articles of interest that they would “rewrite from an African American angle.” Even more important was Young’s work in the circulation department. He passed out bundles of papers for Pullman porters to distribute in towns and cities along their routes. Abbott paid the porters for their services. Finally, Abbott nurtured a relationship with successful African American club owner, Teenan Jones, who became an “informal bank”, in Michaeli’s words, for keeping Abbott solvent when credit from white-led banks was impossible to obtain at reasonable rates.
But Michaeli believes that The Defender’s relationship with the black community as a whole that was most crucial in its survival. By keeping long-time residents, new arrivals, and potential migrants informed on issues of direct importance to them, The Defender was building community among African Americans, both within metropolitan Chicago and across large areas of the country. Stronger community meant large subscription base. Subscribers paid a dollar for a year’s worth of weekly papers, and the subscriptions gave Abbott his most reliable revenue stream.
Michaeli’s book is the biography of a newspaper, so it makes sense that he starts with the life of its founder, Robert Abbott. Born in 1869 on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, to two recently emancipated slaves, Abbott never met his father, who died of “sudden consumption.” His mother–self-reliant, practical, and a self-taught reader–moved back to Savannah, developed a close relationship with her landlord, and ultimately married him. Robert’s step-father–the only father he ever knew–was a German immigrant by the name of John Hermann Henry Sengstacke. Sengstacke had a spiritual/cerebral bent and was ordained as a minister when Robert was seven. “He endeavored to lift the minds of the people above the soil.” Robert would later say. He might have said the same about his own mission in life.
His stepfather gave him access to education, including six years at Hampton University, where he learned printing skills and, at least as important, became a member of the Hampton Quartet. It was as a Quartet member that he was invited to attend the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Talks by an aging Frederick Douglass and a youthful Ida Wells (soon to be Barnett), gave him the inspiration that would shape the rest of his life.
Chicago, itself, had been a revelation to Abbott. In a city of over a million, he observed a small but growing African American community that lived in relative freedom and dignity. It provided a model for how America and “the Race” could adapt into the future. But it needed an evangelist to spread the word. With his printing skills, Abbott was determined to fill that role. Thus, The Defender was born.
Michaeli (or his publishers) want readers to know how it “changed America.” Some will already know that it played a crucial role in spurring black migration from the rural south to the industrial north. Michaeli fills in the details of how this happened. We learn the crucial role the Pullman porters played in distributing the paper, how eagerly these papers were received by southern blacks, and how each copy was passed from hand to hand, sometimes “until they disintegrated.” Carl Sandburg, poet cum reporter, estimated an average of four or five readers for every copy in circulation.
From early on, The Defender wrote for southern blacks as much as for Chicago’s African Americans, and southern lynchings were a staple of its reporting. “Southern White Gentleman Rapes Colored Lady; Is Killed by Husband” blared The Defender’s headline in late 1911. Two Pinkerton agents came to the papers offices (that is, Mrs. Lee’s dining room!) to find the author of the inflammatory article. Abbott required the aid of two white Chicago dignitaries to avoid “extradition.” After the incident, Abbott assured his southern readers that he would not be cowed: “So long as God liveth and as news comes to us in the regular course, The Defender will print, print, print.”
A. B. Walker confessed to the murder and accepted his punishment with dignity: not legal retribution but a hanging at the hands of a mob. His bravery was impressive; the lynching repugnant. The story of Eli Persons is yet more disturbing. With no evidence that he had committed the brutal rape and murder of a white girl, Persons was taken into custody and tortured for twenty-four hours until he finally “confessed.” Then, about to be transferred for his “protection,” Person was attacked by a mob of three thousand which included police officers and men of standing in the community. His murder was nothing less than a sadistic romp. Michaeli shows his bon fides as a journalist by never losing objectivity while retelling this horror. (He does not use scare quote as I have done.) The Defender did not seek objectivity in its editorial stance, yet it showed admirable restraint when it asked, rhetorically, “Do you wonder at the thousands leaving the land where every foot of ground marks a tragedy?”
The Defender’s animus against the South was as strong as it was justified. A 1917 photograph of Georgia migrants titled “The Exodus” read (in part): “tired of being kicked and cursed.” An editorial reminded readers of the ever-present danger of rape: “Every black man for the sake of his wife and daughters especially should leave even at financial sacrifice.” It ended with a frank admission of potential schadenfreude at the South’s expense: “We know full well that would mean a depopulation of that section and if it were possible we would glory in its accomplishment.”
Michaeli teaches us, however, that The Defender did not initially advocate wholesale migration to the North. Here, as elsewhere in the newspaper’s history, Abbott shows an innately conservative nature. He worried that there would not be enough employment for new arrivals. When the European war opened up new factory jobs in 1914-15, he changed his paper’s position.
In 1916 hundreds of African American migrants were arriving in Chicago every week. A quarter of a million left the South in the winter of 1916/17. Almost half a million left in 1917-18. And the exodus was felt in the South. One Georgia paper blamed The Defender for its current labor shortage, saying it “has agitated the Negroes to leave the south on the word picture of equality with the whites.” Another Georgia paper showed an admirable degree of self-awareness (though still distanced itself by using the third person): White people “have allowed negroes to be lynched, five at a time, on nothing stronger than suspicion. When the negro is gone, his loss will be felt in ever large agricultural section and every industrial economy of the South.”
The Defender did more than foment the Great Migration. It was present and weighed in on all the great people and events of the early twentieth century. Its record, in part, is worth noting: Jack Johnson (cheered), Big Bill Thompson (supported and received much for the black community in return), Woodrow Wilson (supported, then disillusioned, then pleasantly surprised), 370th All-black Infantry Regiment (celebrated), Betsy Coleman (supported by financing her plane), Marcus Garvey (condemned), the Klan (reviled), A. Phillip Randolph (butted heads with and was mocked by as “The Surrender” and “The World’s Greatest Weakly”).
Some of the most interesting sections come when Michaeli’s focus turns to Abbott, private citizen. The Hampton graduate, forced to skip meals and walk to the printer to save on trolley fare in his early years, became a very wealthy man by the 1920s. But his Georgia-barrier-island dark skin was the face he presented to the world. Auto dealerships wouldn’t sell him a car, though he could have bought three. (He sent his white wife to make the purchase for him.) Traveling abroad, the Abbotts were turned away from an American-owned hotel but welcomed at an elegant Brazilian one. Abbott felt a certain lightness in France, simply for not being under the constant threat of harassment. But even in Europe prejudiced Americans dogged him. And England was almost as bad as the United States.
I read only the first two hundred pages, through about 1940, which is as late as I go, usually, as a historical reader. Abbott’s replacement by his nephew, John H. Sengstacke had just begun. A new chapter for the “Legendary Black Newspaper” was opened. There is more to the story, all the way up to Obama’s presidency, in Michaeli’s important book.
- The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, by Ethan Michaeli (2016)
- Images: Wikimedia Commons except book cover.