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Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers

Finding Aid: Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers
Repository: Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature

Robert S. Abbott and John Herman Henry SengstackeThe papers of Robert S. Abbott, John H. Sengstacke, and Myrtle E. Sengstacke tell the story not only of one of the most significant African-American papers and publishing companies of the twentieth century, but also of a rich family history. Robert Abbott was born in 1868 in Georgia and raised by his mother Flora Abbott and stepfather John H.H. Sengstacke, the son of a German sea captain and freed slave woman. After his graduation from the Hampton Institute, Abbott entered the newspaper business in 1905, selling a four-page sheet version of Chicago Defender door to door. Though based in Chicago, the Defender was distributed nationwide, with its largest readership in southern states, whom it encouraged to leave for better work and life in northern cities. Abbott’s nephew John Herman Henry Sengstacke began working at the Defender in 1934 and following Abbott’s death in 1940, became publisher of the paper and the Robert S. Abbott Publishing Company. Among Sengstacke’s accomplishments was the creation of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), which was the first national organization of black publishers, and his role in desegregating the armed forces. He also introduced the Chicago Daily Defender, the first Black daily newspaper. His wife, Myrtle Sengstacke, was born to a New Orleans creole family and was involved in a number of Chicago charities and organizations throughout her life.

The Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers at the Harsh Collection number 251 containers, which includes not only manuscript material—including correspondence, Defender records, and family papers—but also approximately 4,000 photographs and over one hundred films that span John H. Sengstacke’s personal and professional life. Robert A. Sengstacke donated the material to the Harsh Collection in 2007.

Mapping the Stacks staff have also processed the Chicago Defender Photograph Collection and the papers of Defender editor Ben Burns.

Selected Artifacts

In April 1944, the U.S.S. Robert S.  Abbott was launched from the Permanente Metals Corporation's Shipyard No. 2. It was the fourth World War II liberty ship launched in honor of African Americans, but the first financed completely by war bonds purchased by black Americans. African Americans in Illinois raised $2,000,000 for the ship, the culmination of a Chicago Defender fundraising campaign. The ship was christened by Myrtle Sengstacke, wife of John Sengstacke. Harry S. Truman, John H. Sengstacke and Richard J. Daley at the 1956 Bud Billiken parade. The parade was first held in 1929 and was named after the fictional editor of the Defender's children's section. Children could apply to be members of the Bud Billiken club, and editors took turns writing Billiken's weekly column. Novelist Willard Motley served as the voice of Bud Billiken as a teenager. When David Kellum became editor of the Billiken page in 1927, he, along with Abbott and Lucius Harper, developed the idea for an annual Defender-sponsored parade. The first annual Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic took place in 1929. By mid-century the annual parade was one of the largest gatherings of African Americans in the United States. Letter written by Robert Abbott in 1934 to the department heads of the Chicago Defender announcing John Sengstacke's appointment as office manager.  This letter marks Sengstacke's official entry into the newspaper and illustrates the early role that Abbott envisioned Sengstacke playing in the running of the newspaper. Letter written from President Harry Truman to John Sengstacke thanking him for his service on the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, established in 1948 under Executive Order 9981, which called for desegregation of the United States Armed Forces.  Sengstacke had been heavily involved in campaigns to desegregate the armed forces since World War II. A Chicago Defender promotion urging advertisers, in the spirit of American patriotism and free enterprise, to advertise to the viable African American market through the Chicago Defender and the black press. Convention program for the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, which today is known as the National Newspaper Publishers Association, held in New York City in June 1946. Representatives from 51 African-American-owned newspapers attended to focus attention on newsgathering, editorial, advertising, and printing issues faced by the black media. Robert S. Abbott stands in front of his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce limousine, 1920s. Robert S. Abbott provides a tour of the Chicago Defender's printing press, 1920s.  The 1919 Chicago Riot created a rift between the Defender and its printer, which temporarily halted the newspaper's production.  In the months that followed, Abbott purchased a high-speed cylinder press from Goss Printing Press Company and installed it at the Defender's new headquarters on Indiana Avenue to prevent any future printing disruptions. The press was valued at more than $500,000. Portrait of John H. Sengstacke and his family members (l to r): Flaurience Sengstacke (sister), Rebecca Sengstacke (aunt; Robert S. Abbott's sister), and Gwen Thomas (cousin). The Chicago Defender's Victory Edition dated September 26, 1942.  The Defender hailed this edition as 'the biggest venture of its kind ever undertaken by the Negro press.' Its eight-six pages included two magazines and a complete picture section that celebrated the loyalty and patriotism of black Americans in the war effort and stressed the need for improved racial relations in the U.S.

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