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Robert Sengstacke Abbott and the Black Press : Introduction

Robert Sengstacke Abbott, a pioneer of America's black press, was born on St. Simons Island, Georgia. This Research Guide is an introduction to his life and and serves as a starting point for more research on the history of the black press in America.

A Voice for Black People

A newsboy sells The Chicago Defender in Chicago, Ill., in 1942. Photograph by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.  The Defender relied on a quiet network of African-Americans, the Pullman Porters, to distribute newspapers and information.

The Pullman Porters

Pullman Porters worked for railroad companies as porters on sleeping cars from 1868-1968. While they were known for their immaculate appearance, and extra attention to quality service and detail, within black communities, they also were heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

Guided by the leadership of A. Phillip Randolph, the Pullman Porters organized the first all-black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1925. The porters also played a vital role in the distribution of black newspapers. Their ability to move about the country, from northern cities and throughout the Jim Crow South, made them the perfect distribution network for information and ideas.

Want to learn more?

Read Rising from the Rails: The Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class by Larry Tye (New York: Henry Holt, 2004. Call Number: HD8039.R362 U68).

The A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum site has more on the story of this information network.

Also, the

America on the Move exhibit and the Chicago History Museum tell the story of the Pullman Porters.

Finally, check out the NPR story, Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class.

Photograph courtsey of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

 

Introduction

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born on November 24, 1868, in the Frederica Community of St. Simons Island, Georgia. His mother, Flora Butler, was a former slave. His father, Thomas Abbott, also a former slave, died when Robert was still an infant. Flora Abbott moved with her baby to Savannah, and married John H.H. Sengstacke, who is credited with encouraging young Robert's future career as a journalist and reformer. 

Robert Abbott attended Beach Institute in Savannah, and Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He also attended Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, where he learned the printer’s trade. He received a Bachelor of Law degree from Kent College of Law in Chicago, but was never able to establish a law career because of racial descrimination.

In 1905, Abbott founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, and thus embarked on a career that would place him in the footsteps of a long line of African-Americans who used the written word as a sword against injustice. The Chicago Defender would become one of the most influential and widely read African-American-owned newspapers in America.

Abbott died on February 29, 1940.

Robert Abbott's home in Chicago. Courtesy of Library
of Congress Prints and Photographs.

Images from The Defender

A photoengraver at The Chicago Defender, Chicago, Ill., in 1941. Photograph by Russell Lee, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

A linotype operator at The Chicago Defender, in 1941. Photograph by Russell Lee, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

A typesetter at The Chicago Defender in 1942. Photograph by Jack Delano, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 


 

Abbott Links

  • The Black Press: Soldiers withouth Swords -- PBS includes a bio of Robert S. Abbott on its site about its documentary on the black press.
  • Bud Billiken Parade -- Robert S. Abbott was the founder of this annual event, which is the oldest African-American parade in America.
  • Georgia Info -- Read the historical marker on the site of Abbott's boyhood home in Savannah.
  • Historical Marker Database -- See the Abbott family gravesites and learn more about the Abbott family monument Robert S. Abbott had erected on the grounds of Fort Frederica.
  • New Georgia Encyclopedia -- This entry offers more background on Robert S. Abbott's intringuing family history.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a crusader against lynching and racism, a staunch advocate for women's rights, a fearless journalist and a founder of the NAACP. During her lifetime, she was the owner of two publications, Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, and the Free Speech, and she wrote articles for other publications. She was born on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Miss. She died on March 25, 1931, in Chicago.

 

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1817, but escaped to freedom at age 20. His life experience and his talent as a writer and orator helped him rise to become one of the most prominent figures of the Abolitionist Movement and later, the fight against Jim Crow laws. Douglass began publishing his newspaper, The North Star, on December 3, 1847, in Rochester, N.Y. The paper's motto was "Right is of no Sex -- Truth is of no Color -- God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren." He died in 1895.

Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.