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Robert Sengstacke Abbott and the Black Press: Robert S. Abbott

A Voice for Black People

Image of newsboy selling The Chicago Defender in 1942

A newsboy sells The Chicago Defender in Chicago, Ill., in 1942. Photograph by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.  The Defender relied on a quiet network of African-Americans, the Pullman Porters, to distribute newspapers and information.

The Pullman Porters

Image of a Pullman Porter

Pullman Porters worked for railroad companies as porters on sleeping cars from 1868-1968. While they were known for their immaculate appearance, and extra attention to quality service and detail, within black communities, they also were heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

Guided by the leadership of A. Phillip Randolph, the Pullman Porters organized the first all-black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1925. The porters also played a vital role in the distribution of black newspapers. Their ability to move about the country, from northern cities and throughout the Jim Crow South, made them the perfect distribution network for information and ideas.

Want to learn more?

Book cover art for Rising from the Rails

Read Rising from the Rails: The Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class by Larry Tye (New York: Henry Holt, 2004. 

The A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum site has more on the story of this information network.

Also, the America on the Move exhibit and the Chicago History Museum tell the story of the Pullman Porters.

Finally, check out the NPR story, Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class.

Photograph courtsey of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

Image of Robert Sengstacke Abbott

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born on November 24, 1868, in the Frederica Community of St. Simons Island, Georgia. His mother, Flora Butler, was a former slave. His father, Thomas Abbott, also a former slave, died when Robert was still an infant. Flora Abbott moved with her baby to Savannah, and married John H.H. Sengstacke, who is credited with encouraging young Robert's future career as a journalist and reformer. 

Robert Abbott attended Beach Institute in Savannah, and Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He also attended Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, where he learned the printer’s trade. He received a Bachelor of Law degree from Kent College of Law in Chicago, but was never able to establish a law career because of racial descrimination.

In 1905, Abbott founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, and thus embarked on a career that would place him in the footsteps of a long line of African-Americans who used the written word as a sword against injustice. The Chicago Defender would become one of the most influential and widely read African-American-owned newspapers in America.

Abbott died on February 29, 1940.
 

Image of Robert Abbott's home in Chicago

Robert Abbott's home in Chicago. Courtesy of Library
of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

Images from The Defender

Image of A photoengraver at The Chicago Defender, Chicago, Ill., in 1941

A photoengraver at The Chicago Defender, Chicago, Ill., in 1941. Photograph by Russell Lee, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

Image of A linotype operator at The Chicago Defender, in 1941

A linotype operator at The Chicago Defender, in 1941. Photograph by Russell Lee, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

Image of A typesetter at The Chicago Defender in 1942

A typesetter at The Chicago Defender in 1942. Photograph by Jack Delano, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

 

 

Abbott Links

Image of The Abbott Memorial at the Fort Frederica National Monument Site on St. Simons Island, GA

The Abbott Memorial is at the Fort Frederica National Monument Site on St. Simons Island, Ga. It was erected by Robert S. Abbott in honor of his family. 

Photograph provided by Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau.

  • The Black Press: Soldiers withouth Swords -- PBS includes a bio of Robert S. Abbott on its site about its documentary on the black press.
  • Bud Billiken Parade -- Robert S. Abbott was the founder of this annual event, which is the oldest African-American parade in America.
  • Georgia Info -- Read the historical marker on the site of Abbott's boyhood home in Savannah.
  • Historical Marker Database -- See the Abbott family gravesites and learn more about the Abbott family monument Robert S. Abbott had erected on the grounds of Fort Frederica.
  • New Georgia Encyclopedia -- This entry offers more background on Robert S. Abbott's intringuing family history.

Special Thanks

Many thanks to the library staff at College of Coastal Georgia for allowing us to borrow from their guide.

Permission to include Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau intellectual property, including photography and trademarked logo, was granted solely by the Golden Isles CVB, and as such should not be taken from our website.