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The Defender: The Beacon to the North

Since Jean Baptiste Point DuSable first settled on the banks of the Chicago River in the 1780s, people of African decent have been embedded in the Chicago milieu. In the 1840s, freedmen and fugitive slaves found their way to Chicago and formed the city's first black community.


Since Jean Baptiste Point DuSable first settled on the banks of the Chicago River in the 1780s, people of African decent have been embedded in the Chicago milieu. In the 1840s, freedmen and fugitive slaves found their way to Chicago and formed the city's first black community. By 1860, nearly 1,000 blacks inhabited the city, but found life in Chicago not without its problems. Discrimination and segregation permeated all aspects of existence. It wasn't until many legal battles over Chicago's inequitable practices that blacks finally began to gain the liberties that other citizens benefited from, at least on paper. When word of new freedoms being enjoyed in Chicago reached the South, a wave of migration began. By 1890, there were 15,000 people of African decent living in the city.

During Chicago's internationally recognized attraction, the World Columbian Exposition of 1893, blacks were excluded from the planning and were offended by the "White City" moniker given to the fair. In response to the protest from black leaders such as Ida B. Wells, blacks were given "colored American" day as an attempt to placate the dissenters.

One of the fair's attendees was a young printing student from the Hampton Institute, Robert Sengstacke Abbott of Savannah, Georgia. While at the fair, he conversed with Fredrick Douglas and Ida B. Wells about the important role the press played in uplifting the black race. That discussion would leave an impression on young Abbott. During his visit, he observed how differently blacks lived in Chicago versus in the South and eventually made the city his home.

Once in Chicago, he attended Kent College of Law and received his law degree, but soon found that making a living as a lawyer for a man of color was not easy. He decided that he could be a defender of his people through journalism. On May 5, 1905, on his landlord's kitchen table, Abbott published the first issue of the Chicago Defender, which was a four-page, cut-and-paste handbill. With an investment of 25 cents, Abbott printed 300 copies of the first issue.

Born in 1870 in St. Simons Island, Georgia, Abbott was the son of former slaves. His mother moved to Savannah and remarried John Sengstacke, a newspaper publisher who had an enormous influence on young Robert.

Abbott's fledgling Chicago Defender was quickly popular with the locals because it gave them news that affected the black community, something the white press didn't do. It was soon hailed as a must-read by blacks everywhere. "[The Defender] was a treasure in terms of information in the black community," says Timuel Black, professor emeritus of City Colleges of Chicago and retired professor from Columbia College, Roosevelt University and Harold Washington College. "People looked forward to the weekly distribution of the paper. It became very popular. If you hadn't read the Defender, you hadn't [gotten] very much information."

The Defender led the way in creating an entertainment page, as well as being one of the first to introduce a sports page, telling of the exploits of the Negro Baseball League. Some of the greatest writers of that era such as W.E.B. DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes wrote for the Defender.

Some white newsstands refused to carry the paper so Abbott solicited the assistance of the neighborhood kids, who sold copies for ten cents. Three dollars could buy a yearly subscription to "The World's Greatest Weekly", as Abbott described it. "Young people like myself growing up, sold the Defender," says Black. "We would go pick up the Defender. It didn't cost us any money to pick it up at the old Defender office and stand on the corner or go up on the el tracks, or we would have customers who were regular and we would deliver the paper. It afforded young people like myself, at the time, a way to have some weekly income."

The Defender's first full-time paid employee, J. Hockley Smiley, was hired in 1910. With Smiley on staff, the paper began to address national issues. It pointed out racial injustices in America, such as lynchings, rapes, assaults and other atrocities plaguing African Americans. "Here was [Abbott], who was from the South, who came to the Midwest, [who] was embolden by his past, but also by being in a situation that was not as blatantly racist as others, he had a lot more freedom to expand on those issues in the Defender," explains Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender. Abbott never used the words "Negro" or "black" to describe African Americans in his paper. Instead, he used "the Race" or "Race men" and "Race women." The paper's popularity grew, not only in Chicago, where it exceeded the circulation of its three rival papers The Broad Ax, The Conservator and the Illinois Idea, but all over the country, especially in the South. Blacks in the South depended on the Defender for news from the North so that they would know what was going on outside their depressed existence. Reading the Defender also cultivated dreams for better lives.

Initially, the Defender encouraged southern blacks to stay and fight their oppressors because jobs were scarce in the North, but with the onset of World War I, industrial jobs that were previously denied to blacks now became available because of the dwindling European immigrant labor force. Abbott saw this as an ideal opportunity for blacks. He began an aggressive campaign to encourage them to leave the South. He told of life in Chicago and all that it had to offer and posted job listings, train schedules and photos of the best schools, parks and housing in the city, in comparison to the deplorable conditions in the South. To help ease the transition of the southern blacks to Chicago, Abbott published a list of do's and don'ts for the newcomers. "The attractions of the North were many," explains James Grossman, vice president for research and education at The Newberry Library. "Industrial jobs, with higher wages than were available in the South, schools for their children, the right to vote and the chance to escape the everyday indignities of Jim Crow culture."

The Defender was widely circulated among the blacks of the South.

Boys would sell the Defender on the streets throughout communities for 10 cents. It was read aloud in homes, churches, barbershops and other public venues. Each copy was passed along and read by at least five people before it was finally discarded. By 1916, it had a circulation of 10,000, and by 1918, 100,000 were distributed, with two-thirds of its readership outside of Chicago. This made the Defender the first black newspaper with a circulation of more than 100,000 and over half a million readers each week. At its zenith, the paper's circulation was estimated to be 250,000.

In the May 15, 1917 issue of the Defender, the headline declared, "Great Northern Drive." The Great Migration was underway. The Defender became the roadmap to freedom for southern blacks. The mass exodus from the South to northern cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago was the largest movement of a group of people at one time in the U.S. history. Between 1915 to 1925, more than 500,000 blacks migrated to the North.

Of all the cities blacks journeyed to, Chicago had the greatest allure. It was known for its mail order houses, large industries like steel and iron mills and stockyards, immense railway system and the 1893 exposition. Chicago was "The Promised Land" to so many who wanted a better life, and by 1918, 110,000 came, tripling the black population, with 78 percent of black Chicagoans living on the city's South Side.

Abbott was relentless in his efforts to assist blacks in the South in finding a new way of life. But southern land owners were equally determined to keep their labor force. They banned the Defender from the South and inflicted serious punishment for those caught reading or distributing issues. The paper wasn't even allowed through the postal system. Outlawing the Defender only gave rise to more creative means of distribution.

The Pullman Porters played a vital role in the circulation of the Defender and in the migration of southern blacks. The porters were links between blacks in the rural South and the North, bringing news of events. "They played a pivotal role in [the Great Migration] because folks in the South didn't have information about what was occurring," explains Lynn Hughs, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. "Not only did they distribute the Defender, but they carried information verbally to people and often shared information about what was happening, the good and bad things." The Pullman Porters would distribute the Defender to blacks from one end of the country to the other. Once the Defender was banned, they would smuggle the paper on the train, keeping it hidden, and at a designated point, they would toss off a bundle of papers to a pickup person. "They were the first national distributors of the Chicago Defender. There were no formal established outlets for the paper. The Pullman Porters developed their own brand of distribution in that they established unofficial drop-off points for the Chicago Defender," Hughs says.

Blacks from all walks of life were complicit in transporting the Defender to the South. Members of the Negro Baseball League would take the paper on the road with them and pass it along. Even entertainers like W.C. Handy would import the paper to southerners whenever possible.

The next large wave of blacks leaving the South to move north was between the 1940s and 1970s, producing an even larger exodus than the earlier evacuation. This time millions more blacks fled the South. It's estimated that between 1910 and 1970 five to six million blacks found their way north. During this period, the Defender continued to be the beacon that many followed.

The Defender continued to be published out of Abbott's landlord's kitchen until 1921, when the paper moved to a new plant at 3435 S. Indiana. It remained there until 1960, when it moved to 2400 S. Michigan. This year the paper is moving to the Loop.

"Historically, African Americans lived on one side of town, namely the South Side," says Executive Editor Roland Martin. "We were not allowed to live elsewhere, and so, much like other black newspapers across the country, we have to have a more comprehensive circulation as well as content strategy, because now you have African Americans who are living downtown, on the North Side, West Side and the suburbs."

Although the Chicago Defender was not the first black paper in the country, it was without doubt the most influential in the Great Migration and other issues affecting blacks in early America. After a 100 years of reporting, the Defender remains a powerful voice for readers across the country. o

Published: February 01, 2006
Issue: Winter 2006