On this dayMay 05, 1905
Chicago Defender Publishes First Issue
On May 5, 1905, the Chicago Defender, a major publication of the black press, published its first issue. Founded by Robert Abbott, it was the first African American newspaper in Chicago, Illinois, and grew to be one of the most influential black newspapers of the time.
From its first issue, the Defender was a leading advocate in the fight against racial, economic, and social injustice. It championed equal employment and fair housing for black people in the North, and detailed acts of voter suppression against Southern black communities and sexual violence against black women. Perhaps most notably, the Defender boldly reported on racial terror lynchings when other publications refused to do so.
By 1920, what began as a four-page handbill had developed into a widely-read, full newspaper with a weekly circulation of over 100,000. Each copy was passed from person to person, and read aloud in barbershops and churches. It is estimated that, at its height, each paper sold was read by four to five African Americans, putting its readership at more than half a million people each week. The 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.
In many cities in the South, distribution or possession of the Defender was illegal. In spite of efforts to curb circulation through legal bans and violent intimidation, the Defender increased in popularity, enjoying its largest growth during the Great Migration.
In 1900, African Americans constituted nearly a third of the population in Southern states and less than two percent in other regions. In the South, black people occupied the lowest rung of a harsh racial caste system, and were subjected to sharecropping, discriminatory Jim Crow laws, extreme poverty, and brutal racial violence. Seeking safety and freedom, more than six million African Americans left the South in a steady stream over the span of sixty years beginning in the early 20th century. The Defender is credited as a major catalyst for the movement of millions of black people from the South to the North, and drew many to its home base; between 1916 and 1918, at least 110,000 black people migrated to Chicago, nearly tripling the city’s black population.
Following World War I, the Defender covered the 1919 nationwide "Red Summer" race riots from the black perspective. At a time when the overwhelming majority of news outlets were white-owned and biased in favor of white supremacy, racial hierarchy, and the status quo, the Defender was one of the most prominent black outlets giving voice to the experiences, realities, and discontent of black Americans throughout the country, sometimes serving as the only documentation of incidents and attacks that local Southern papers refused to report. The paper campaigned for anti-lynching legislation, advocated for integrated sports, spoke out against segregation of the armed forces in the early 1940s, and actively challenged segregation in the South during the civil rights era.
Today, the Defender remains in publication, and its archives illuminate decades of racial terror, inequality, and courageous activism that may have otherwise been lost to history.