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Robert Sengstacke Abbott
November 24, 1870 - February 29, 1940
Lawyer and Publisher


Robert Sengstacke Abbott was an African American lawyer and newspaper publisher. Born in Frederica, St. Simons Island, Georgia to former slave parents, Abbott was still a baby when his father, Thomas Abbott, died. Flora, his mother, then met and married John Sengstacke, who came to Georgia from Germany in 1869. Sengstacke's background was remarkable: his father, Herman, was a wealthy German merchant immigrant who in 1847 had purchased the freedom of a slave woman, Tama, from the auction block and subsequently married her; John, their child, was sent to Germany to be raised there. John returned to the States and met the German speaking Flora, married, and raised Abbott with a large family background in cross-race successes. John was a Congregationalist missionary who wrote: "There is but one church, and all who are born of God are members of it. God made a church, man made denominations. God gave us a Holy Bible, disputing men made different kinds of disciples."
Abbott went on and studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) from 1892 to 1896. He received a law degree from Kent College of Law, Chicago in 1898, but because of race prejudice in the United States was unable to practice, despite attempts to establish law offices in Gary, Indiana, Topeka, Kansas, and Chicago, Illinois.

In 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender with an initial investment of 25 cents. The Defender, which became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country, came to be known as "America's Black Newspaper" and made Abbott one of the first self-made millionaires of African-American descent. The unique point in history when the Chicago Defender was becoming popular, allowed it to be successful. Tension was building in the years surrounding World War I. Blacks were migrating from the south to the industrial centers of the north that were in great need of workers to manufacture goods for the war. Also stories from previous migrants to the north were trickling down to the south and giving hope to the people of the south. Sengstacke, through his writings in the Chicago Defender captured those stories, encouraged people to leave the south for the north. In fact, he even set a date, May 15th, 1917, for when The Great Northern Drive, a name he coined for the event, to occur. In his weekly, he showed pictures of Chicago and gave plenty of space for classifieds for housing and wrote how awful a place, the South was to live in comparison to the idealistic North, a place of prosperity and justice. This persuasive writing, “thereby made this journal probably the greatest stimulus that the migration had.”

Sengstacke, was a fighter, a defender of rights. He had ideas and expectations of his race that he fought his whole life to help them become a reality. In fact, he created a list of nine goals, of which created the Defender's Bible:

1. American race prejudice must be destroyed
2. The opening up of all trade-unions to blacks as well as whites.
3. Representation in the President's Cabinet
4. Engineers, firemen, and conductors on all American railroads, and all jobs in government.
5. Representation in all departments of the police forces over the entire United States.
6. Government schools open to all American citizens in preference to foreigners.
7. Motormen and conductors on surface, elevated and motor bus lines throughout America.
8. Federal legislation to abolish lynching.
9. Full enfranchisement of all American citizens.

The Chicago Defender not only encouraged people to migrate north for a better life, but to fight for an even better lifestyle once they got their. The slogan of the paper and number one of the Defender's bible, “American race prejudice must be destroyed,” is an excellent example of what he thought the paper was capable of and what the ideal experience of an African American or any American should be.

Using The Chicago Defender, Sengstacke fought for his cause. He remembered the history of his nation, especially in his arguments concerning interracial marriage. He wrote, "Miscegenation began as soon as the African slaves were introduced into the colonial population and continues unabated to this day. . . . What's more, the opposition to intermarriage has heightened the interest and solidified the feelings of those who resent the injunction of racial distinction in their private and personal affairs." He believed that if laws were to restrict one's personal choice in a mate then in was in pure violations of the Constitution and the “decision of two intelligent people to mutual love and self-sacrifice should not be a matter of public concern." Abbott also published a short-lived periodical called Abbott's Monthly. The Defender actively promoted the northward migration of Black Southerners, particularly to Chicago; indeed, its columns not only reported on, but helped to bring about the Great Migration (African American). Defender circulation reached 50,000 by 1916; 125,000 by 1918; and more than 200,000 by the early 1920s. A key distribution network for the newspaper were the African-American railroad porters (who by 1925 came to organize as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters).

Abbott met `Abdu'l-Bahá, head of the Bahá'í Faith, in 1912 covering a talk of his during his stay in Chicago and was listed as a frequenter of Bahá'í events in Chicago with his wife in 1924.

After inventing the fictional character "Bud Billiken" with David Kellum, Abbott established the Bud Billiken Club and in 1929 Abbott and Kellum founded the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic.

After searching through several religious communities for an atmosphere free of race prejudice, even among "light skinned" African-Americans, Abbott officially joined the Bahá'í Faith in 1934 because of its freedom from such prejudice at the convention to elect its National Spiritual Assembly.

Though some of the Sengstacke family became Nazis, Abbott continued correspondence and economic aid to those that accepted his family history, and also assisted the owners of his birth father--the descendants of Captain Charles Stevens--whom Abbott was able to assist during the Depression; even to paying for the education of children.

Abbott died of Bright's disease in 1940 and was interred in the Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, IL. His will left the newspaper in the control of his nephew, John Henry Sengstacke.

His home, the Robert S. Abbott House, is a National Historic Landmark.

A biography was published in 1955: Roi Ottley,The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1955).

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