Robert S. Abbott, Class of 1898

Founder of the Chicago Defender newspaper

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was an African-American lawyer and newspaper publisher who is best known as the founder of the Chicago Defender. Abbott was born in Georgia in 1870 and studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) from 1892 to 1896. He earned his law degree from Kent College of Law in 1898 but, due to racial prejudices at the time, was unsuccessful in his attempts to establish a law practice in Gary, Indiana, Topeka, Kansas and Chicago.

In 1905, Abbott founded the Chicago Defender, which soon became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country, reaching more than 200,000 people by the early 1920s and making Abbott one of the first self-made millionaires of African-American descent. The paper encouraged African-Americans to migrate north, especially to Chicago, and to fight for a better lifestyle once they got there. The Chicago Defender was the first black newspaper to have a circulation over 100,000, the first to have a health column, and the first to have a full page of comic strips. As such, Abbott was one of the key influencers of what became known as the Great Migration – the movement of nearly six million African-Americans from the rural south to the Northeastern, Midwestern and Western states.  Largely due toThe Defender, Chicago’s African-American population more than tripled in the 1910s and 20s.

In 1923, Abbott created the fictional character, Bud Billken, who later served as a symbol of pride, happiness and hope for black residents of Chicago during the Great Depression. It was also the inspiration for the first Bud Billiken Parade in 1929, which grew to become the oldest and largest African American parade in the United States, as well as the second largest annual parade in the country.

In 1919, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden appointed Abbott to the state’s Race Relations Commission, which later authored a landmark report in 1922 on African-American urban conditions.  He also served as a board member at the Wabash Avenue YMCA and the Chicago Urban League and was the national executive President of the Hampton Alumni Association. Abbott passed away in 1940 from Bright’s disease, but his legacy lives on in the Chicago Defender and at the Robert S. Abbott House, located at 4742 South Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago.