Robert Sengstacke Abbott

Lawyer, Newspaper Publisher, & Editor

“When women have a voice in national and international affairs, wars will cease forever.”

Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded one of the major black newspapers in the United States, the Chicago Defender. Helped by a massive migration to the North inspired by his own newspaper, he made a fortune. Although his central contribution was his newspaper, his exceptionally well-documented life throws light on many aspects of black life in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Through both the news and the editorial columns of the Chicago Defender, Abbott must be counted one of the major black spokesmen of his time.

Robert Abbott was born on November 24, 1868, in Frederica, on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, to Thomas and Flora Butler Abbott. Thomas Abbott, a man of unmixed African heritage, had been the butler on the Charles Stevens plantation. When the Stevenses fled to the mainland in the face of the imminent Union occupation of the island, Thomas Abbott successfully hid the family’s property from silver to furniture and restored it all after the Civil War. At his death in 1869, he was one of the few African Americans to be buried in the Stevens family cemetery and therefore had a marked grave, unlike those in the slave burying ground.

At the war’s end, Thomas left the island for Savannah. There he met and married Flora Butler, who worked as a hairdresser in the Savannah Theater. Flora Butler had been born in Savannah, on December 4, to African born parents. Shortly after the marriage, Thomas and Flora Butler moved back to St. Simon’s where Thomas ran a grocery store with little success. Shortly thereafter, Flora gave birth to Robert.

Robert Abbott

When Thomas Abbott died of tuberculosis in 1869, Flora Abbott moved back to Savannah with Robert to be close to her family because the Abbott family resented her status. They started legal proceedings to gain custody of Robert. John Hermann Henry Sengstacke (1848—1904) came to Flora’s aid by hiring a white lawyer, who secured a restraining order. John Sengstacke married Flora Butler Abbott on July 26, 1874. They had seven children: John Jr., Alexander, Mary, Rebecca, Eliza, Susan, and Johnnah. The five-year-old Robert Abbott became known as Robert Sengstacke.

Eight-year-old Robert enjoyed the Woodville suburb of Savannah, where his stepfather’s church and school were located. There he learned his stepfather’s work ethic during an early summer job as errand boy in a grocery store. As part of his training, his mother insisted that he pay 10 of the 15 cents a week he earned at the grocery for his room and board. Later jobs included one as a printer’s devil at a newspaper.

Learned His Trade

In the fall of 1886 Robert Sengstacke Abbott entered Beach Institute, an American Missionary School in Savannah, to prepare for college. As one of the two or three dark-skinned students, he suffered deeply from the color prejudices of his light-skinned fellows. Robert managed to persuade his stepfather to send him to Claflin University, then still a Methodist elementary school in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

After six months’ study there, Abbott decided to learn a trade and applied to Hampton Institute. While waiting for a place to become available, Abbott worked as an apprentice at the Savannah Echo. He was probably associated with his stepfather’s preparations to put out a local paper, the Woodville Times, which began publication in November of 1889, the same month the 21-year-old Abbott entered Hampton Institute to learn the trade of printing.

At Hampton, Abbott still experienced difficulties due to color prejudice and also initially due to his own clumsy social behavior. The intervention of Hollis Burke Frissell, a white teacher and second head of Hampton, enabled Abbott to talk through some of his problems. As quoted by Ottley in The Lonely Warrior, Abbott later summarized Frissell as saying, “I should so prepare myself for the struggle ahead that in whatever field I should decide to dedicate my services, I should be able to point the light not only to my own people but to white people as well.”

With his fine tenor voice, Abbott became the first first-year-student member of the Hampton Quartet. A classmate said that Abbott’s dark skin influenced the choice since school officials preferred to send dark students on fund-raising missions. He completed his printing course in 1893 and his academic work in 1896, all at Hampton.

At the age of 28, Abbott still sought out a career. He returned to Woodville and took part-time jobs as printer and schoolteacher. After a failed romance, he left for Chicago in the fall of 1897 to enroll in the Kent College of Law (later Chicago-Kent).

Although Abbott had been known as Robert Sengstacke for more than 20 years, to his stepfather’s sorrow he used the name Robert Sengstacke Abbott when he registered. On May 20, 1899, he graduated with a bachelor of law degree. He was the only African American in the class.

Edward H. Morris, a prominent, fair-skinned black lawyer and politician, advised Abbott that his skin color would be a major impediment to law practice in Chicago, where black lawyers generally found law to be a part-time profession in the best of cases. After futile attempts to practice law in Gary, Indiana, and Topeka, Kansas, Abbott returned to Chicago, giving up all hope of practicing as an attorney. He never passed the Illinois bar examination.

Abbott turned to printing. Earlier he had secured a card from the printers’ union, but there was a tacit understanding that he would be hired for only one day. At this point, however, black politician Louis B. Anderson forced a printing house doing city work to hire Abbott. Abbott had steady work doing the tedious job of setting railroad time tables and correcting any errors on his own time.

After John H. H. Sengstacke died of nephritis on June 23, 1904, Abbott and his sister Rebecca planned to open a school on the premises of his stepfather’s Pilgrim Academy. After proceeding so far as to advertise the school, Abbott suddenly changed his mind, and decided to stay in Chicago to launch a newspaper. This appeared to be an idea likely to fail since Chicago already had three marginally successful black newspapers.

Chicago Defender Appeared

The first issue of the Chicago Defender appeared on May 5, 1905. Abbott printed, folded, and then distributed his paper himself. It was 1912 before the Defender acquired its first newsstand sales. Abbott canvassed every black gathering place in the community, selling his paper, soliciting advertising, and collecting news. His rounds, which he continued even after he could rely on others to distribute his papers, gave him great insight into the concerns of Chicago’s black community. In spite of Abbott’s hard work and personal sacrifice, the paper nearly closed down after a few months.

At this point, his landlady, Henrietta Plumer Lee, made a decisive intervention. She allowed him to use the dining room in her second-floor apartment at 3159 State Street as an office for the newspaper. The newspaper began to prosper, and eventually took over the whole building at the address that became its headquarters for 15 years.

In 1904, Lee nursed Abbott through an attack of double pneumonia. For four years, she accepted token payments on his rent and food. Lee was moved not only by maternal feelings, but she also shared Abbott’s vision of a newspaper to champion black concerns. Henrietta Lee almost certainly saved the Defender from closing and helped it to become a major force in the black community. In 1918, Abbott bought her an eight-room brick house; when she moved in, he again followed as her lodger. Lee’s daughter became a longtime employee, and her son became a stockholder in the Robert S. Abbott Publishing Company.

Robert Abbott’s paper slowly grew until it had a press run of 1,000 copies. He then discovered a cause that contributed to growth. Great fires in Chicago had forced the red-light district into the unburnt black sections of town, and it stayed. In 1909, Abbott launched a campaign against vice in black neighborhoods. This campaign helped to sell papers until reformers forced prostitution underground in 1912, depriving him of his best issue.

Robert Abbott

By 1908, Abbott reduced his overhead by taking the printing to a larger, white publishing house. Weekly costs ran about $13, but the paper remained essentially a one-man operation. Abbott could not even give himself a salary. Many people made unpaid contributions by reporting, collecting out-of-town news, and even writing editorials. Railroad workers collected printed materials left on the trains, which could be scanned for news of interest to blacks.

In 1910, the Defender experienced another lift when Abbott hired J. Hockley Smiley as managing editor. Smiley provided coherence to Abbott’s racial vision and built up the paper by adopting some of the sensational tactics of yellow journalism. Under Abbott’s supervision, Smiley oversaw a radical overhaul of the paper’s format, which now included sensational banner headlines, often printed in red. If sensational news was lacking, Smiley was not above making up stories.

He also innovated the black press by establishing theater, sports, editorial, and society departments. He followed Abbott’s wishes in abolishing the use of the terms “Negro,” “Afro-American,” and “Black” in favor of “race,” with an occasional use of “colored.”

Financial irregularities would plague the Defender’s early history. Smiley died of pneumonia in 1915, suffering from neglect by Abbott according to a rival paper. By this time, however, Abbott attracted able associates even though most were unpaid. While he remained the paper’s leader, he relied on a growing number of talented people. For example, Fay Young, longtime sports editor, began unpaid work for the paper in 1912 while also working as a dining-car waiter. In time, Abbott began paying salaries.

Defender Grew

In 1915, Abbott broke new ground for black newspapers by putting out an eight-column, eight-page, full-size paper. The format appeared in the first extra of the Defender, on November 14, announcing the death of Booker T. Washington. By this time, Abbott had begun to distance himself from Washington by urging blacks to leave the South to seek out better opportunities in the North. At the same time, however, Abbott moved no closer to the position of W. E. B. Du Bois, as the newspaper editor championed the hopes of the black masses rather than those of a talented tenth.

The Defender’s sensational, in-depth coverage of the Brownsville incident in Texas led to a nationwide, 20,000 copy increase in circulation. The Defender was launched on its career as a national newspaper. By 1920, the Defender’s circulation reached at least 230,000. More than two-thirds were sold outside of Chicago, with a tenth of the total going to New York City.

The Defender also drew attention from the authorities. Although Abbott was unfailingly patriotic in his editorial position, the Wilson administration disliked the paper’s frank reporting of the armed forces’ treatment of African Americans as second-class citizens. The Defender had launched its official campaign for blacks to move north “The Great Northern Drive” on May 15, 1917. In the South, the paper’s support of migration and its frank reporting on racial conditions drew the hostility of state and local officials to the point that its distribution to eager black readers became clandestine in certain regions.

At the end of World War I, the paper’s circulation stabilized at approximately 180,000. Printing and costs posed major problems, especially since, unlike most newspapers, the Defender made most of its money from circulation rather than from advertising. On May 6, 1921, Flora Abbott Sengstacke pressed the button that put a highspeed rotary printing press in operation at 3435 Indiana Avenue, another first for black journalism.

But, with the advanced technology of the press, there were no black printers able to run it. Abbott hired a union crew of whites. The arrangement worked with no problems until the Depression years, when the employment of whites and their union wages came under attack. The Defender replaced its white printers with blacks. The new plant also cut the printing costs by $1,000 a week. Abbott became known for the frugality of his salaries and other overhead. He also was becoming a very wealthy man.

As the paper’s circulation grew, Abbott began to favor a policy of gradualism in race progress. Although coverage of lynchings and racial conflict continued, the space devoted to it declined in favor of a sharp increase in stories about crime. The coverage now included such topics as fashion, sports, arts, and blacks outside the United States. Abbott’s continued push for integrating and upgrading African Americans in the workforce, eventually contributed to important gains in the police and fire departments.

Abbott himself was becoming an establishment figure. He received honorary degrees from universities such as Morris Brown and Wilberforce. He became president of the Hampton alumni association and a member of the board of trustees. On September 10, 1918, he married Helen Thornton Morrison, a fair-skinned widow some 30 years younger than himself. The Abbotts became patrons of such institutions as the Chicago Opera and began to entertain widely. The Abbotts toured Brazil in 1923, and Europe in 1929.

The marriage was not happy, however, and it seems likely that Helen never loved him. Toward the end of the marriage he suddenly moved out of his house, charging her with infecting him with tuberculosis and hiring people to kill him. Helen Abbott obtained a divorce decree on June 26, 1933, which included $50,000, the house furnishings, the limousine, and lawyer’s fees. On August 7, 1934, Abbott married Edna Denison, another very light-complexioned woman. She too appears not to have been moved by love.

Although his wives did not love him, Abbott had over 100 relatives to whom he was very generous. His German cousins‐offspring of his father’s sister—and the white descendants of the Stevens family profited from his affections. The Stevenses fell on hard times during the Depression, so Abbott provided help for several years. He paid special attention to John Herman Henry Sengstacke, the son of his half-brother Alexander. Abbott liked him so much that he educated and trained him to take over the Defender.

Soon after the 1923 trip to Brazil, Abbott once again had to deal with financial irregularities‐this time inadequate bookkeeping. He promptly fired managing editor Phil Jones, and replaced him with Nathan K. Magill, his sister-in-law’s husband. Unfortunately, Magill lacked Abbott’s almost instinctive understanding of the Defender’s readers and supporters.

Magill took an antiunion stand in the fight of railroad porters to unionize. Since the Defender’s distribution depended on the cooperation of porters, Abbott had to intervene to change the paper’s position. In spite of his limitations, Magill was tight-fisted and aided the paper’s financial success.

Defender Survived The Depression

Just one month before the stock market crash of 1929, Abbott launched the first well-financed attempt to publish a black magazine, Abbott’s Monthly. The monthly initially succeeded, but in 1933 it fell victim to the massive black unemployment caused by the nation’s dire economic situation.

The Defender initially ran into problems, although it again showed a profit by the end of 1933. Due to more financial mishandling, Abbott fired Magill and took over running the paper himself. At this time he brought his nephew John H. H. Sengstacke into the organization. In rebuilding his staff, Abbott rehired a number of people Magill had released.

In the next three years, Abbott became very ill and was in the office for only 20 months. In 1933, he was found to have tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his birth father. In addition, he became so myopic that others had to read to him. At the end of his life he was almost permanently confined to bed. Abbott ultimately died of a combination of tuberculosis and Bright’s disease on February 29, 1940. There was a large and elaborate funeral at Metropolitan Community Church followed by burial in Lincoln Cemetery.

Abbott was a shrewd businessman and a hard worker, but his success as a publisher is due in large part to his skill at discerning and expressing the needs and opinions of the black population. Abbott had the good fortune to have his beloved paper fall into the capable hands of his nephew, John H. H. Sengstacke, who was able to carry on Abbott’s creation.

Quick Facts

Born Date:
November 24, 1868

Death Date:
February 29, 1940

  • He graduated from Kent College of Law (now Chicago–Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago, Illinois, in 1899.
  • In 1905, Abbott founded the Chicago Defender, a four-page weekly newspaper that defended the rights and interests of African Americans. It printed editorials that attacked white oppression and the lynching of African Americans.
  • By 1929, the Defender was selling more than 250,000 copies each week. Abbott served as editor of the Defender until his death on February 29, 1940, in Chicago.


BIO: +

Last Updated

July 2020

Original Published Date

July 2020

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