Early Chicago: The Black Press

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American Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed!

Robert S. Abbott

Chicago has been home to many distinguished black newspapers, however the most successful was the Chicago Defender. In 1905, Robert S. Abbott founded and published the Chicago Defender newspaper as a weekly, four-page handbill. The paper grew from a kitchen table publication into the most influential black newspaper in America. Abbott was determined for his paper to become a champion of human rights for African Americans and "right the wrongs of the many." In addition to reporting the news, the Defender served to protest inequity and discrimination, promote political and personal action, and reflect the values and ambitions of black people.

The Chicago Defender's striking influence on African Americans can be seen during what Abbott called the "Great Northern Drive." By printing stories of gross injustice and poverty in the South, while vividly depicting Northern cities as destinations for social and financial opportunity, Abbott stoked the hopes of Southern blacks and spurred them on to join in the Great Migration.

The Chicago Defender's coverage of local and national news documented pervasive race problems in the United States. The paper provided eyewitness reports on Chicago's Race Riot of 1919, editorialized against lynching and promoted integrated sports. Celebrated black writers graced the paper's pages including Langston Hughes, columnist Walter White, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The Chicago Defender set the standard for the black press.

In the late 1930s, Abbott retired due to failing health and turned the paper's editorial duties over to his nephew and heir, John H. Sengstacke. Under Sengstacke's leadership, 'The World's Greatest Weekly' became a daily newspaper. The Chicago Defender continues to serve as a strong voice in the black community today.

Though the Chicago Defender was the city's most celebrated black newspaper, there were many others vying for readership as well. As the black population grew, becoming more prosperous and cosmopolitan, more and more black newspaper publishers were launched to provide paying customers with stories they wanted to read.

Early black papers focused on political and religious news. As the black press became more sophisticated, reporters began covering the social scene, scandals, murders, trials, and local and national events. Sharply worded editorials, particularly by the Defender helped to shape an emerging, urban black culture. According to a survey by the Illinois Writer's Project, at least 32 black papers circulated in Bronzeville during the late '30s and early '40s.