Founding of the Chicago Defender

Tribune staff reporter

A European visitor observed in 1891 how few blacks there were in Chicago and opined that "the severity of the climate repels the Africans."

It was the genius of Robert S. Abbott, who on this date published the first edition of the Chicago Defender, to recognize that the climate that counted for blacks was not meteorological, but social, economic and political.Abbott not only founded the country's most influential African-American newspaper; through its pages, he encouraged the great migration of blacks from oppression in the rural South to relative freedom and economic opportunity in the urban North.

Abbott was born in Georgia to former slaves. His stepfather, a minister who also published a small newspaper, instilled in him a belief in the power of the press to improve the lot of black Americans.

Abbott came to Chicago in 1893, when he sang with a quartet at the World's Columbian Exposition. Ultimately, the success of the Defender made him a millionaire. But in the beginning, the four-page weekly had a one-man staff. Reporter, editor, deliverer--Abbott did it all.

Because it was published in the North, the Defender enjoyed far greater freedom than Southern black newspapers in criticizing the region's racial oppression.

Abbott became a scourge of Southern racism. The more vigorously Southern whites tried to suppress the Defender, the more ardently Southern blacks sought and responded to it.

Abbott urged blacks to abandon the South and move north, where they could "get the wrinkles out of their bellies and live like men." Heeding him--and seizing the opportunity opened by curtailed European immigration as World War I approached--Southern blacks swelled Chicago's black population from about 40,000 at the time of the Defender's founding to almost 500,000 by the time the great migration ended in the late 1940s.

Other northern cities experienced similar black growth. Thanks in no small part to Abbott's Defender, America was a radically different nation and Chicago a radically changed city.

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