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Robert S. Abbott

AKA Robert Sengstacke Abbott

Born: 24-Nov-1868
Birthplace: St. Simons Island, GA
Died: 29-Feb-1940
Location of death: Chicago, IL
Cause of death: Kidney failure
Remains: Buried, Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, IL

Gender: Male
Religion: Bahai
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Publisher, Editor, Activist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Chicago Defender

Robert S. Abbott's parents had been slaves, freed by the Civil War. As a young man he worked as a printer and school teacher before attending law school, but after graduating he was unable to earn much of a living -- few blacks were able to pay an attorney, and fewer whites willing to hire a black lawyer. In 1905 he started the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper with Abbott as its only staff member, laid out on his kitchen table for a press run of only 300 copies. The paper struggled during its early years, and probably only survived because Abbott's landlady, Henrietta Lee, shared his vision for the newspaper's success -- she allowed him to expand its offices into a second room, even as he fall far into arrears on the rent. After several years the paper was being widely distributed in the South, carried by black railroad porters, and after about fifteen years it became the first paper for African-Americans to surpass 100,000 in circulation. Numerous well-respected black writers wrote for the Defender, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Walter White.

Published in Chicago but distributed nationwide, Abbott's Defender spoke forcefully against lynching, racism, and segregation, and urged Southern blacks to migrate north, where racism was less blatant and job opportunities more plentiful. Largely due to the Defender, Chicago's black population more than tripled in the 1910s and '20s. Its coverage eschewed terms like "negro", "colored", or "black", instead simply referring to African-Americans as "the race". During World War I the newspaper called for equal rights for "the race" in the U.S. military, a position so radical it led to an investigation of Abbott for unfounded allegations of sedition. Under the motto "Carries more live news of racial interest than any ten weeklies", the Defender had half a million readers at its peak. As the newspaper prospered Abbott became one of America's first black millionaires, and he was often dubbed "the colored William Randolph Hearst." He purchased a new home as a gift for the landlady who had saved the paper years earlier, and according to legend he provided a small stipend to the white family that had owned his father, but had since fallen on hard times.

In the 1920s, the Defender added a special page just for kids, called the Bud Billiken Page, which led to the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, a huge family-oriented progression. Still held in Chicago on the second Saturday of every August, the parade now has tens of thousand of participants every year, is viewed in person by hundreds of thousands, and is aired live on television. The Chicago Defender is now published daily, but with nowhere near the circulation and influence it once had.

Father: Thomas Abbott (slave, d. 1869)
Mother: Flora Butler Abbott (slave)
Father: John Sengstacke (stepfather, m. 1874, d. 1904)
Brother: John Sengstacke Jr. (half-brother)
Brother: Alexander Sengstacke (half-brother)
Sister: Mary Sengstacke (half-sister)
Sister: Rebecca Sengstacke (half-sister)
Sister: Eliza Sengstacke (half-sister)
Sister: Susan Sengstacke (half-sister)
Sister: Johannah Sengstacke (half-sister)
Wife: Helen Thornton Morrison Sengstacke (b. circa 1899, m. 1918, div. 1933)
Wife: Edna Denison Sengstacke (m. 1934)

    High School: Beach Institute of Freedmenís Bureau, Savannah, GA
    University: Claflin University (1893)
    University: BS, Hampton University (1896)
    Law School: Chicago-Kent College of Law (1899)

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