Robert S. Abbott: Defender of the Race
Most grade school children can state what Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall accomplished during their lifetimes. Yet, we tend to forget about other heroes. Throughout this month, let us consider all who sacrificed to end segregation and tried to put an end to racial inequalities. One of these heroes was Robert S. Abbott.
Enjoy trivia? Here's one for you: In what American newspaper would you find the first comic strip? The answer might surprise you, as it is the first African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender owned and run by an attorney unable to practice due to his race, Robert S. Abbot. His paper was the first for publishing many things including a health column and circulation over 100,000. Much more important than that was his focus.
He began his venture in 1905 and quickly built up quite a following, mostly in the Chicago area. By 1910, with the assistance of his first and only employee, he covered racial issues not found in other publications. Lynchings, rapes, and equally disturbing violence dominated his headlines. Interestingly, within these articles he never used the word, Negro, preferring to use "Race men and Race women".
Mr. Abbott played his part in the Great Migration, pushing -- through his paper -- for a black migration to better living conditions in the north. WW1 and immigration laws slowing the flow of qualified workers had created many job opportunities. Therefore, the time was right for over a million African Americans to migrate from the south to better jobs in the north.
As race riots erupted across the country in 1919, he pushed for anti-lynching legislation; still, no federal law exists. With readership growing daily, columnists joined the Defender including, Walter White -- early NAACP member and fighter for civil rights -- and Langston Hughes -- novelist, poet, and writer. Mr. Abbott passed on in 1940 from kidney disease but his campaign for equal rights carried on through his nephew John H. Sengstacke who grew the paper into the largest and most read black-owned newspaper in the world.