Sankofa Studies

Robert Sengstacke Abbott

February 6, 2021

Lawyer. Newspaper founder and editor. Founder of the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic

Robert Sengstacke Abbott (November 24, 1870 – February 29, 1940) was an American lawyer, newspaper publisher and editor. Abbott founded  The Chicago Defender in 1905, which grew to have the highest circulation of any black-owned newspaper in the country. He also founded the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic in August 1929.

Abbot was born on November 24, 1870, in St. Simons, Georgia (although some sources state Savannah, GA) to free parents, who had been enslaved before the Civil War. Abbott studied the printing trade at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). At Hampton, he sang with the Hampton Choir and Quartet, which toured nationally.He earned a law degree from Kent College of Law in 1898. 

After settling in Chicago, in 1905 Abbott founded The Chicago Defender newspaper with an initial investment of ¢25 (equivalent to $7 in 2019). He started printing in a room at his boardinghouse; his landlady encouraged him, and he later bought her an 8-room house. His goal was to push for job opportunities and social justice and was eager to persuade blacks to leave the segregated, Jim Crow South for Chicago. A key part of his distribution network was made up of African-American railroad porters, who were highly respected among blacks, and by 1925 they organized a union as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. They often sold or distributed the paper on trains. Defender circulation reached 50,000 by 1916; 125,000 by 1918; and more than 200,000 by the early 1920s. Credited with contributing to the Great Migration of rural southern blacks to Chicago, the Defender became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country. It was known as “America’s Black Newspaper.” Its success resulted in Abbott becoming one of the first self-made millionaires of African-American descent. His business expanded as African Americans moved to the cities and became an urbanized, northern population.

Abbott was a fighter, a defender of rights. The Chicago Defender not only encouraged people to migrate north for a better life, but to fight for their rights once they got there. The slogan of the paper and the first goal was “American race prejudice must be destroyed.”

After inventing the fictional character “Bud Billiken” with David Kellum for articles in the Defender, Abbott established the Bud Billiken Club. In 1929 Abbott and Kellum founded the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic.  It became an occasion for African Americans to celebrate their pride and connections.

Fun Fact: Robert Abbott helped Bessie Coleman realize her dream. In 1915 at age 23, Bessie moved to Chicago to live with her older brother. She became a beautician and worked as a manicurist at a barbershop on the south side of the city. There, she met Robert Abbott, the publisher of the Chicago Defender. Bessie would listen to the flying stories of pilots returning home to the United States after the end of World War I and decided that she would like to fly. She took a second job in order to save money quickly so that she could pursue her dream to be a pilot, but at that time American flight schools did not admit either blacks or women. Robert Abbott encouraged Bessie to study flying abroad and later she received financial backing from a banker, Jesse Binga, and the Chicago Defender.


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