Robert Sengstacke Abbott

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Robert Sengstacke Abbott
File:Robert s abbott.jpg
Abbott circa 1919
Born (1870-11-24)November 24, 1870
St. Simons Island, Georgia, United States
Died February 29, 1940(1940-02-29) (aged 69)
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Cause of death Bright's Disease
Resting place Lincoln Cemetery
(Blue Island, Illinois)
Alma mater Hampton University
Kent College of Law
Known for Founder of The Chicago Defender and The Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic
Parent(s) Flora Butler
Thomas Abbott

Robert Sengstacke Abbott (November 24, 1870 – February 29, 1940) was an African-American lawyer, newspaper publisher and an early African-American Bahá'í. Abbott is the founder of The Chicago Defender newspaper and The Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic.


Abbot was born on November 24, 1870 in St. Simons Island, Georgia (although some sources state Savannah, Georgia[1]) from former slave parents. When he was still a baby, his father, Thomas Abbott, died. Flora Abbott (née Butler), his mother, then met and married John Sengstacke, who had come to Georgia from Germany in 1869. [2]

Abbott went on and studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) from 1892 to 1896. At Hampton, he sang with the Hampton Quartet and traveled extensively.[1] He received a law degree from Kent College of Law, Chicago, in 1898. However, due to the racial prejudices, was unable to practice; despite attempts to establish law offices in Gary, Indiana, Topeka, Kansas, and Chicago, Illinois.

In 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender with an initial investment of ¢25 (around $600 in 2010 terms).[3][4] The Defender, which became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country, came to be known as "America's Black Newspaper" and made Abbott one of the first self-made millionaires of African-American descent. The unique circumstances of the early 1900s created the enivronment in which the Chicago Defender became successful. Tensions were building in the years surrounding World War I. Blacks were migrating from the South to the industrial centers of the north—which were in great need of workers to manufacture goods for the war. Also, stories from previous migrants to the north were trickling down to the South and giving hope to the people. Sengstacke, through his writings in the Chicago Defender, captured those stories and encouraged people to leave the South for the north. In fact, he even set a date, May 15, 1917, for The Great Northern Drive - a name he coined for the event - to occur.[5] In his weekly, he showed pictures of Chicago and gave plenty of space for classifieds for housing. In addition, Abbott wrote about how awful a place the South was to live in comparison to the idealistic North. Abbott's words described the North as a place of prosperity and justice.[6] This persuasive writing, “thereby made this journal probably the greatest stimulus that the migration had,”.[7][6]

Sengstacke, was a fighter, a defender of rights. He created a list of nine goals that constituted the Defender′s Bible:

  1. American race prejudice must be destroyed
  2. The opening up of all trade-unions to blacks as well as whites.
  3. Representation in the President's Cabinet
  4. Engineers, firemen, and conductors on all American railroads, and all jobs in government.
  5. Representation in all departments of the police forces over the entire United States
  6. Government schools open to all American citizens in preference to foreigners
  7. Motormen and conductors on surface, elevated and motor bus lines throughout America
  8. Federal legislation to abolish lynching.
  9. Full enfranchisement of all American citizens.[8]

The Chicago Defender not only encouraged people to migrate north for a better life, but to fight for an even better lifestyle once they got there. The slogan of the paper and number one of the Defender's bible, “American race prejudice must be destroyed,” is an excellent example of what he thought the paper was capable of and what the ideal experience of an African American or any American should be.[9]

Using the Chicago Defender, Sengstacke fought for his cause. He remembered the history of his nation, especially in his arguments concerning interracial marriage. He wrote, "Miscegenation began as soon as the African slaves were introduced into the colonial population and continues unabated to this day.... What's more, the opposition to intermarriage has heightened the interest and solidified the feelings of those who resent the injunction of racial distinction in their private and personal affairs.".[10] He believed that if laws were to restrict one's personal choice in a mate then in was in pure violations of the Constitution and the “decision of two intelligent people to mutual love and self-sacrifice should not be a matter of public concern.".[11] Abbott also published a short-lived periodical called Abbott's Monthly. The Defender actively promoted the northward migration of Black Southerners, particularly to Chicago; indeed, its columns not only reported on, but helped to bring about the Great Migration (African American). Defender circulation reached 50,000 by 1916; 125,000 by 1918; and more than 200,000 by the early 1920s. A key distribution network for the newspaper were the African-American railroad porters (who by 1925 came to organize as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters).

Introduction to the Bahá'í Faith

Abbott met `Abdu'l-Bahá, head of the Bahá'í Faith, in 1912 covering a talk of his during his stay in Chicago during his journeys in the West and was listed as a frequenter of Bahá'í events in Chicago with his wife in 1924.[12]

After inventing the fictional character "Bud Billiken" with David Kellum, Abbott established the Bud Billiken Club and in 1929 Abbott and Kellum founded the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic.[13]

After searching through several religious communities for an atmosphere free of race prejudice, even among "light skinned" African-Americans, Abbott officially joined the Bahá'í Faith in 1934 because of its freedom from such prejudice at the convention to elect its National Spiritual Assembly.[12][14][15]

Final years

In 1919, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden appointed Abbott to the Race Relations Commission. The commission would go on to publish the book, The Negro in Chicago.[1]

Though some of the Sengstacke family became Nazis, Abbott continued correspondence and economic aid to those that accepted his family history, and also assisted the owners of his birth father—the descendants of Captain Charles Stevens—whom Abbott was able to assist during the Depression; even to paying for the education of children.[12]

Abbott died of Bright's disease in 1940 in Chicago, Illinois.[16] He was buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois. His will left the newspaper in the control of his nephew, John Henry Sengstacke.


His home, the Robert S. Abbott House, became a National Historic Landmark.

A biography was published in 1955: Roi Ottley, The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1955).

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Yenser, Thomas, ed. (1933). Who's Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America 1930-1931-1932 (Third ed.). Brooklyn, New York: Who's Who in Colored America. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. John Sengstacke's father, Herman, was a wealthy German merchant immigrant, and he purchased the freedom of a slave woman, Tama, from the auction block in 1847. Subsequently he married her and John, their child, was sent to Germany to be raised there. After returning to the States, John met and married the German-speaking Flora. John and Flora raised Abbott in a family with a long history of transversing rigid racial boundaries. John was a Congregationalist missionary who wrote, "There is but one church, and all who are born of God are members of it. God made a church, man made denominations. God gave us a Holy Bible, disputing men made different kinds of disciples."
  3. Dray, Philip (2002). At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York City: Modern Library. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-375-75445-6. OCLC 51330092.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Wintz & Finkelm (October 14, 2004), Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Routledge, p. 1, ISBN 978-1-57958-389-7, 157958389X<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Ottley, Roi. The Lonely Warrior. United States of America: Henry Regnery Company, 1955. Print. 160.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lochard, Metz T. P. "Phylon Profile, XII: Robert S. Abbott --"Race Leader." Phylon (1940-1956), 8.2 (1947): 124-32. JSTOR. Web. November 11, 2009. <>.125.
  7. "Robert Sengstacke Abbott", The Journal of Negro History 25.2 (1940): 261-62. JSTOR. Web. November 11, 2009. <>.262
  8. *Ottley, Roi, The Lonely Warrior. USA: Henry Regnery Company, 1955. Print. 126.
  9. *Lewis, Cecil T. "The Paradoxical Abbott". Phylon (1940 - 1956) 17.2 (1956): 193. JSTOR. Web. November 11, 2009. <>.193.
  10. Lochard, Metz T. P. "Phylon Profile, XII: Robert S. Abbott --"Race Leader." Phylon (1940-1956) 8.2 (1947): 124-32. JSTOR. Web. November 11, 2009.<>. 128-129
  11. Lochard, Metz T. P. "Phylon Profile, XII: Robert S. Abbott --"Race Leader." Phylon (1940-1956) 8.2 (1947): 124-32. JSTOR. Web. November 11, 2009. <>. 129.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 "Robert S. Abbott and the Chicago Defender: A Door to the Masses" by Mark Perry, printed in the October 10, 1995 issue of the Michigan Chronicle
  13. Celebrated African-American parade of pride boasts Baha'i connections August 3, 2007.
  14. The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott by Roi Ottley, 1955, H. Regnery Co., p. 13.
  15. A Long and Thorny Path: Race Relations in the American Bahá'í Community(Chapter) by Richard W. Thomas, Ph.D. pp. 37-66, of Circle of Unity: Baha'i Approaches to Current Social Issues, edited by Anthony A. Lee, 1984 Kalimat Press, ISBN 0-933770-28-6, p. 44 especially.
  16. "Robert S. Abbott, 69, A Chicago Publisher. Negro Newspaper Founder Was on Permanent Fair Board". New York Times. March 1, 1940. Retrieved November 27, 2010. Robert Sengstacke Abbott, founder and publisher of The Chicago Defender, Negro weekly newspaper, died today in his home here after an illness of several ...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Boris, Joseph J., ed. Who's Who in Colored America (1928-1929), Who's Who in Colored America Corp., New York, 1929, p. 1
  • Taitt, John, The Souvenir of Negro Progress, Chicago, 1779-1925, The De Saible Association, Inc., [Chicago, 1925?], p. 27
  • Watkins, Sylvestre C., The Pocket Book of Negro Facts, Bookmark Press, Chicago, 1946, p. 1
  • Blue, Jr., John T. "Review: The Black Mr. Hearst." The Journal of Negro Education 25.2 (1956): 149-51. JSTOR. Web. November 17, 2009. <>.
  • Gebo, Dora R. "Review: [untitled]." The Journal of Negro History 41.1 (1956): 89-90. JSTOR. Web. November 17, 2009. <>.

External links