Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History lived an African American man named Robert Sengstacke Abbott who became a national and international millionaire Black press leader as the founder of The Chicago Defender, “the only Black daily newspaper in Chicago” in the late 1800s and 1900s.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in St. Simon Island, Georgia on November 24, 1870, the son of parents who were formerly enslaved – Tom Abbott and Flora Butler (Abbott), who was a hairdresser at the Savannah Theater. His father Tom later passed away, and when his father’s family, the Abbotts, wanted custody of their child Robert, Flora fled with Robert, to then later remarry. Her husband, John Hermann Henry Sengstacke, a biracial man who was the son of a German father and enslaved Black mother who were married in 1847, became his step father, fully adopting him. His parents had more children, making Robert a sibling to many, and they both operated a shop owned by Sengstacke’s German father.
Robert’s stepfather, John Sengstacke, was a very educated man who had been sent to Germany and come back to Georgia to work in the same city Robert’s mother worked – Savannah. They discovered he was actually a Negro, and they fired him, therefore, he was what would be considered as white passing – someone passing purposely for white to gain the benefits of a system built on white supremacy. However, despite his white passing for a period of time for gain in the state Georgia, he’d never been attracted to white women. He liked Black women. Therefore, he put off that white passing and married Flora, and he then became a Black leader in the area, while teaching Robert Sengstacke Abbott, his step son everything he knew about printing when he founded the Woodville Times newspaper in 1889.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott Education
Abbott was educated at Beach Institute in Savannah, Georgia, the HBCU Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and he also attended the HBCU Hampton University in Virginia where he studied the trade of printing, urged to by his stepfather. After all of his education in the South, in 1896, he relocated to the city of Chicago, Illinois to attend Kent Law School, utilizing the printing trade her learned to work his way through law school.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott Career in Law & Publishing
With his law degree, Abbott began practicing law, and made the decision to go to work defending African Americans through printing and publishing after having become inspired by the newspaper owned by Ida B. Wells called the Free Press and Frederick Douglass’ speeches. This is where on May 5, 1905, he published the first edition of the Chicago Defender, and he planned on it going to the full African American population of Chicago. Now, it didn’t cost Abbott much to publish the paper, under $20 which is approximately $674 today, and the operation of the paper took place in his landlady’s kitchen.
The Chicago Defender Newspaper
The Chicago Defender started as a small notice delivered hand to hand. He would print hundreds of copies, selling them all himself as a sole proprietor and solopreneur. Abbott never stopped. He was passionate about his publishing and the paper’s reach grew between 1905 to 1971 tremendously. The Chicago Defender began moving over 25 million copies on up and not only nationwide, but in as many as eight foreign countries.
Inside the Chicago Defender, Abbott wrote about everything from discrimination and racism and even pushing Black people to move to the North to escape, what was then, a tremendous amount of terror in the South. He promoted the Black race and defended it at all costs.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s Death
Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s health began to decline, and he passed away. His nephew, John H. Sengstacke, took over the Chicago Defender and began publishing the Daily Defender in 1956. Before his death, he’d become a millionaire, able to put many family members through college.
See The Louisville Defender for more on his collaboration with another Black Entrepreneur named Frank L. Stanley Sr.
- The News Journal, 19 Nov 1971, Fri · Page 47
- The Commercial Appeal16 Jun 1988, Thu · Page 24
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