Academic journal article Journalism History

A Forgotten Leader: Robert S. Abbott and the Chicago Defender from 1910-1920

Academic journal article Journalism History

A Forgotten Leader: Robert S. Abbott and the Chicago Defender from 1910-1920

Article excerpt

Most people make it through life unscathed by public opinion. Robert S. Abbott was not one of those people. From the day he published the first issue of the African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, in 1905, to the day he died in 1940, Abbott was subjected to almost constant public scrutiny. Some saw him as a prophet leading southern blacks to the northern "Promised Land." Florette Henri, for example, believed that if "there was finally a black Joshua it was Robert Abbott."1 The famed sociologist, Gunnar Myrdal, wrote that Abbott was "The greatest single power in the Negro race."2 Others, however, were not so generous. Black-nationalist leader Marcus Garvey pronounced Abbott as a "race defamer . . . who publishes in his newspaper week after week the grossest scandals against the race," while Julius Rosenwald saw Abbott as, "asmonkey with a shotgun. "3 Both camps, however, recognized that he had the power to influence millions.

While Abbott's career as a newspaper owner spanned more than thirty-five years, the period between 1910 and 1920 is viewed as the most important and influential epoch of his auspicious career. In this brief span, he not only helped define a new era in black journalism, he also waged a migration campaign that helped entice 250,000 southern blacks to move North in search of a better life.

Unfortunately, when one thinks of great black leaders and their significant accomplishments, Robert S. Abbott, his paper, and his migration campaign are usually forgotten. While other race champions such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King, Jr., have had a myriad of articles, critiques, and biographies written about them, only one article and one biography examining Abbott's life have been written-and both were published before 1956.4

Subsequently, since little has been written about the man and his paper, it is the purpose of this work to illuminate Abbott's salient contributions to journalism and to African-American history, specifically during the years from 1910 through 1920. This will be accomplished by 1) briefly describing Abbott's early life, 2) detailing the embryonic period of Abbott's journalistic career, and 3) analyzing the Defender's migration campaign of 1917-1919. Nothing about Robert Abbott's early childhood suggested that he would become one of the most influential blacks in American history. He was raised on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia, by his mother, Flora, and his stepfather, John Sengstacke, a German immigrant, educator, and part-time minister.5 By the time Robert turned eight, he was receiving individualized religious and educational training from his stepfather who believed that "intelligence was necessary for Christian salvation."6 Sengstacke, however, taught his stepson more than just how to write and read. He told Robert of his social obligation to his race-"the Sengstacke mission." By the time Robert was fourteen, he became his stepfather's close companion and would often accompany him on missionary errands. During this period, Robert also began preparing for college. He enrolled at Beach Institute in Savannah, a preparatory school.7

By 1887, at the age of seventeen, Robert was ready to start college. In October of that year, he entered Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina.8In November 1889, at the age of nineteen, Abbott decided to expand on his education and moved to Virginia to begin printing classes at Hampton Institute. Hampton's goal, like that of alumnus Booker T. Washington, was to produce black men and women who would be productive in the agricultural and industrial fields. Abbott finished his training as a printer in 1893 and remained to complete his academic work in 1896. Looking back on his days at Hampton, he would say that the time spent there was the most pleasurable of his life.

After graduation, Abbott, now twenty-six, headed for Chicago, a city that he had been exposed to while singing with the Hampton Quartet at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. …

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