How the Chicago Defender became a national voice for black Americans

On May 5, 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the Chicago Defender newspaper in a small kitchen in his landlord's apartment, with an initial investment of 25 cents and a press run of 300 copies.

The Chicago Defender's first issues were in the form of four-page, six-column handbills filled with local news items gathered by Abbott and clippings from other newspapers. Five years later, the Chicago Defender began to attract a national audience.

By the start of World War I, the Chicago Defender was the nation's most influential black weekly newspaper, with more than two-thirds of its readers located outside of Chicago.

During World War I, the paper used its influence to wage a successful campaign in support of The Great Migration. It published blazing editorials, articles and cartoons lauding the benefits of the North, posted job listings and train schedules to facilitate relocation, and declared May 15, 1917, as the date of the "Great Northern Drive."

The Chicago Defender's support of The Great Migration encouraged Southern readers to migrate to the North in record numbers. Between 1916 and 1918, at least 110,000 people migrated to Chicago, nearly tripling the city's black population.

Following the war, the Defender covered controversial events such as the Red Summer Riots of 1919, a series of race riots in cities across the country. The Chicago Defender campaigned for anti-lynching legislation and for integrated sports.

In 1920, it moved from the landlord's apartment to a location on South Indiana Avenue, the first of four homes for the newspaper in Chicago.

In 1923, the Chicago Defender introduced the Bud Billiken Page, the first newspaper section just for children.

Today, the Chicago Defender, along with the Chicago Defender Charities, is the producer and organizer of the world famous Bud Billiken Day Parade and Picnic. The Bud Billiken Parade, which originated in 1929, is the largest event of its kind.

Columnists at the Defender included Walter White and Langston Hughes. The paper also published the early works by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Heralding itself as the "The World's Greatest Weekly," the Defender spoke out against segregation of the armed forces in the early 1940s and actively challenged segregation in the South during the civil rights era.

In 1940, John H. H. Sengstacke, Abbott's nephew and heir, assumed editorial control and continued to champion for equality. In 1965, Sengstacke purchased The Pittsburgh Courier, along with papers such as the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit and the Tri-State Defender in Memphis. Sengstacke served as publisher of the Defender until his death in May 1997.

Today, the Chicago Defender is the flagship publication of Detroit-based Real Times Inc.

• Illinois 200 is produced as a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors.

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In 1940, John H. H. Sengstacke, right, nephew and heir to Chicago Defender founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott, assumed editorial control of the newspaper and continued to champion for equality. Library of Congress
A Chicago Defender worker helps prepare for the next edition of the paper, circa 1940. Library of Congress
In 1940, John H. H. Sengstacke, right, nephew and heir to Chicago Defender founder Robert Sengstacke Abbott, assumed editorial control of the newspaper and continued to champion for equality. Library of Congress

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Most people know about the Great Chicago Fire, but there's a lot more to Illinois history than that. Native American settlements thousands of years old, the battle over slavery, the transfer of influence from southern to northern Illinois, wars and riots, the gangsters and politicians and artists and athletes that shaped our state all will be part of a yearlong series of articles to mark Illinois' bicentennial. The Daily Herald and dozens of publications across the state are joining forces on the series, which will continue until Illinois' 200th birthday on Dec. 3. Find previous stories at

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