By MURPHY BROWNE
On May 5, 1905, a 27-year-old African American man, Robert S. Abbott, founded what would within a few years become known as the “The World’s Greatest Weekly.”
The Chicago Defender began as a two-cent weekly published from the kitchen of Abbot’s landlady and eventually became the foremost African-American publication. Abbot was born on Nov. 24, 1870 on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia to formerly enslaved Africans. He attended Hampton Institute in Virginia and Chicago’s Kent College of Law, from which he graduated in 1899.
Finding it difficult to practice law because of racial discrimination, Abbott chose instead to publish a newspaper. For five years, he was the editor, salesperson and circulation director.
Abbott hired his first employee in 1910. As the paper grew, regular contributors included scholar W.E.B. Dubois, writer Langston Hughes and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. By 1920, the paper’s circulation exceeded 200,000 and was widely read in the North and the South.
The Chicago Defender gave voice to an African American point of view at a time when White newspapers and other media would not. During World War I the newspaper advocated equal rights for African Americans in the U.S. military, a position so radical it led to an investigation of Abbott for unfounded allegations of sedition. Abbott frequently wrote about the Jim Crow laws designed to segregate African Americans and opposed the formation of a segregated Colored Officers Training Camp in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in 1917.
The newspaper frequently reported on police brutality against African Americans and the struggles of African American workers. The Chicago Defender also regularly reported on the numerous incidents of White mobs lynching African American men, women and children and the paper received national attention in 1915 for its anti-lynching slogan, “If you must die, take at least one with you.”
The Chicago Defender was unique in its time for several reasons including the fact that the word Negro was never used to describe African Americans; instead they were The Race and members of The Race were Race men and Race women. Even though the newspaper was based in Chicago it was widely read in the southern states where it was distributed by African Americans employed as porters and waiters on the railroad. The newspaper was also distributed by African American athletes and entertainers and had to be smuggled into the south because groups such as the Klu Klux Klan tried to confiscate copies or threatened its readers.
The Chicago Defender was passed from person to person and read aloud in barbershops and churches. It is estimated that at its height each paper sold was read by at least five African Americans, putting its readership at over 500,000 people each week.
The Chicago Defender was the first African American newspaper to have a circulation over 100,000 and the first to have a health column.
The migration of African Americans from the dangerous Southern U.S. with its Jim Crow laws to Northern states like Chicago was encouraged by information in the Chicago Defender. During World War 1 (1914-1918) articles and editorials in the newspaper provided information for those African Americans living in the south willing to migrate. Determined to encourage African Americans to escape segregation, labour exploitation and White violence Abbott published not only articles and editorials but also cartoons, train schedules and job listings.
The Great Northern Migration, as it was called in the Chicago Defender, resulted in millions of African Americans migrating with a significant number going to Chicago, which incidentally was founded by an African man who was born in Haiti. Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable is recognized as the founder of Chicago by the city government of Chicago and the state of Illinois. He was also recognized with a U.S. postal stamp issued on February 20, 1987.
This information about DuSable was published in the March 18, 1996 edition of the Chicago based African American Jet Magazine:
“Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was born in San Marc, Haiti, in 1745. His mother, an enslaved African woman, was killed when he was about ten years old. His father, who was his mother’s ‘owner’, sent Du Sable to be educated in France, then later employed him as a seaman. Du Sable was 20 years old when he was shipwrecked near New Orleans and had to go into hiding for fear of being enslaved on U.S. soil. He eventually made his way to the area now known as Chicago and was the first African settler as well as the first ‘non-native’ settler in that area.”
In spite of Chicago being touted as a better alternative to living in southern states for African Americans, they were not welcome by White Chicagoans. Matters came to a head on July 26, 1919 when the city erupted in what has been described as a “race riot” after Eugene Williams, an African American teenager who was swimming in the designated “White” 29th Street beach area was murdered by a White man. When a White police officer refused to arrest the accused and even prevented an African American police officer from effecting the arrest things got ugly. Even in de facto “desegregated” Chicago, it was accepted practice for African Americans to swim in the waters of Lake Michigan off 25th Street beach and White Americans to swim in the waters of Lake Michigan off 29th Street beach and “never the twain shall meet”.
Rumours spread in the White community erroneously identified the victim of the July 26, 1919 murder as White and the perpetrator as African American but things had been simmering for a while. According to William M. Tuttle Jr. who wrote in his 1996 book, Race riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919:
“Not long after Eugene Williams’ body had been raised to the surface of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s “athletic clubs” had mobilized for action. These gangs, composed of white teenagers and young men in their twenties, many of the roughest of whom were of Irish descent, had terrorized black people for years. For weeks, in the spring and summer of 1919, they had been anticipating, even eagerly awaiting a race riot. On several occasions, they themselves had endeavored to precipitate one, and now that racial violence threatened to become generalized and unrestrained throughout Chicago, they were set to exploit the chaos.”
When the dust settled after the four day (July 27-30) conflict it was reported that 23 African Americans had been killed, 537 wounded and 1,000 families left homeless. The Chicago Defender ceased its encouragement of African American migration to Chicago.
Unfortunately, nowhere in the USA was really safe for African Americans; Chicago was only one of several areas where they were subjected to racial violence. In his 2003 book The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, Richard Wormser writes: The Chicago Riot was part of a racial frenzy of clashes, massacres, and lynchings throughout the North and the South. All were started by whites. In Washington, D.C., four whites and two blacks were killed. Whites were astonished that blacks were fighting back. The New York Times lamented the new black militancy: “There had been no trouble with the Negro before the war when most admitted the superiority of the white race.”
No doubt leaders like Robert S. Abbott and his publication the Chicago Defender encouraged and contributed to the new assertive and “fighting back” spirit of African Americans many of whom had returned from fighting in the European tribal conflict from 1914 to 1918.
In the 21st century there remains a need for the “ethnic press” to give voice to those voices not heard/represented in the White media.