Prominent African Americans from History: the “Father of Black Journalism”


graphic by Glorianna Noland

Robert Sengstacke Abbott, also known as the the “Father of Black Journalism” was able to shine a light on the injustices during his lifetime. He is still remembered for his remarkable career.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott, also known as the “Father of Black Journalism” and the founder of the Chicago Defender, was one of the first African American millionaires in the U.S.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born Dec. 24, 1870 in Frederica, St. Simons Island, Georgia. Both his parents, Flora and Thomas Abbott were former slaves and later were able to buy their freedom. Unfortunately, before Abbott was born, his father died. His mother went on to marry John H. Sengstacke, who later had a heavy influence on Abbott’s passions for equality and ultimately his career.

According to the African American Registry, Abbott studied at Claflin University and Kent Law School located in Chicago. He went on to receive his law degree in 1899, yet found it difficult being a lawyer. Abbott was told that he was “too dark” to practice law. Since he was African American, finding work as a lawyer was extremely rough. He was often turned down simply because he was black. This frustrated Abbott, so he decided he’d help his community another way. He began working at his stepfather’s newspaper to learn the trade as a printer. He also attended Hampton Institute in Virginia to learn more about printing, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Abbott decided that this would be his chance to defend his people in print and take a stand against racism in America.

May 5, 1905, Abbott established The Chicago Defender in his landlady’s dining room. He went door to door in Chicago selling copies of his newspaper and eventually sold 300 in total. After working hard for 15 years, Abbott was finally able to turn a profit from his newspaper.

Eventually, The Defender became the most popular African American newspaper in America. According to Blackpast, the paper struck issues of racism, specifically the ongoing lynching in the south. In addition, when addressing African Americans in the paper “Negro” or “black” were never used. Instead, the term “the Race” was used to uplift the community. At its height, each paper sold was read by about 500,000 people a week according to Blackpast.

Though with all of this success, many were very unhappy with The Chicago Defender. It was banned in many places, specifically during World War I. This is because Abbott fervently tried to convince African Americans in the south to migrate north. There, many would have the opportunity to live better lives. Abbott would list train schedules and job openings in hopes to get people to the north. Overall, he was very successful getting more than one billion African Americans to migrate north.

In the 1920s, Abbott’s paper became a true economic success making him one of the first African American millionaires in the U.S.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was a courageous man, who used his passion for equality to help African Americans. According to Encyclopedia of Chicago, in creating the Chicago Defender he gave a “new space for blacks to air their views and voice their discontent.” Abbott paved the way for popular black publications such as, Essence and Ebony and for this he will be remembered.

Edited by: Ellie Walker, Alyssa Storm