African-American Transportation History: Robert Sengstacke Abbott, Newspaper Publisher

African-American publisher Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who was born in Georgia in 1870, creatively utilized a coast-to-coast rail transportation network to disseminate and popularize his newspaper The Chicago Defender. The son of one-time slaves, Abbott launched the newspaper in the Windy City in 1905.

The Chicago Defender, focusing on African-Americans and the civil rights challenges that they faced, became known as “America’s Black Newspaper.” Initially, however, Abbott encountered a huge obstacle while trying to make the Defender available outside of Chicago: the refusal of the traditional system of national distributors to help deliver his newspaper. Abbott and his staff, seeking to get around the supply-chain embargo, found themselves relying on more informal means for widely distributing the Defender.

A key part of this strategy involved the support of a large and well-established African-American group with regular access to far-flung communities nationwide: the Pullman porters, who worked on the sleeping cars operated by the Pullman Company on behalf of several railroads.

With Chicago ideally positioned as one of the nation’s major railroad hubs, the porters were able to pick up bundles of the newspaper there and then hand out copies at stops during train journeys throughout the United States.

This method of delivery was especially crucial in the South, where numerous cities and towns had banned distribution of the Defender. Copies of the newspaper, after being secretly brought to those communities via trains, inevitably turned up in such neighborhood gathering places as churches and barbershops.

Due in large part to the efforts of the Pullman porters, the Defender was being distributed to 71 municipalities nationwide by 1916. Abbott’s newspaper made history as the first African-American newspaper with mass circulation and far-reaching influence. Abbott continued to serve as editor of the Defender until his death in 1940 at the age of 69.

For more information on Robert Sengstacke Abbott, please check out https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/abbott-robert-sengstacke-1870-1940/.

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