Robert S. Abbott’s “Defender” (5-5-1905)

On this date a young lawyer named Robert S. Abbott began publishing a newspaper for Chicago’s African-American community.  He called it the Chicago Defender.

Abbott had tried to open a law practice in several different cities, but had run into racial prejudice.  He had some experience as a printer.  Starting a newspaper appealed to the entrepreneur in him.

Robert S. Abbott

Robert S. Abbott

Here, too, he faced some obstacles.  The city’s African-American population was still tiny, about 30,000.  There were already well-established Black-owned newspapers in Chicago, such as the Broad Ax and the Conservator.  The Defender was a four-page weekly, sold by subscription.

Abbott operated on a shoestring at first.  He wrote the copy, set the type. folded the papers, and sold them–all by himself.  When he ran short of cash, he was forced to operate out of his landlady’s living room.

Early issues were devoted to news about local people.  Page four was nearly all advertising.  Mixed in with the listings for furnished rooms were ads from a butcher, a lawyer, an undertaker, a physician, a coronet instructor, two barbershops, three hotels, three nightclubs, and one shoe shine parlor.

The initial press run was 300 copies.  By 1912 the Defender was taking on a more professional appearance and selling 1,000 copies a week.  That was when Abbott moved into newsstand sales.  The operator of a stand on 35th Street agreed to stock the paper if Abbott would run a story about her aunt’s death.

Now Abbott began publishing more about social issues.  African-Americans were starting to move from the rural South to the industrial cities of the North.  The Defenderencouraged the migration–Abbott called it The Great Northern Drive.

Abbott Historical Marker (Savannah, Georgia)

Abbott Historical Marker (Savannah, Georgia)

The paper regularly reported on the discrimination and violence endured by Southern blacks.  This contrasted with the relative freedom of cities like Chicago.  In the South, the ruling class tried to suppress the Defender.  The paper continued to circulate, often in secret.

By the 1920s Abbott’s paper had become a daily in Chicago, and also published a weekly national edition.  The Defender continued to rely on unpaid stringers, but now had a paid staff as well.  Circulation was over 200,000.

Robert S. Abbott died in 1940, a self-made millionaire.  Celebrating its 109th birthday today, the Defender is still going strong.




2 Responses to “Robert S. Abbott’s “Defender” (5-5-1905)”

  1. 1 brian May 5, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Real nice post John….great info

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