The Founder of Chicago Defender: A Look into the Life, Achievements, and Passing of Robert Sengstacke Abbott



Meet Robert Sengstacke Abbott, a remarkable American lawyer, newspaper publisher, and editor, born on November 24, 1870, on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Growing up in a time of profound societal shifts, his life was bound for the extraordinary.

In 1905, Abbot unveiled the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that would later boast the highest readership among all black-owned newspapers nationwide.

Then, in August 1929, Abbott, a trailblazer of the Bahá’í Faith in the U.S., initiated the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, leaving an indelible mark on the cultural landscape.

The parade in Chicago, Illinois, is the second largest in the country and has evolved into a celebration of youth, education, and African-American culture.

The Early Years of Robert Sengstacke Abbott:

Born on December 24, 1870, Robert Sengstacke Abbott entered the world to parents who had once been slaves before the American Civil War, their freedom achieved. His birthplace was St. Simons, Georgia, although some sources propose Savannah, Georgia as an alternative. The Sea Islands, home to the Gullah people, an African-descendant ethnic group, served as a cradle of cultural preservation, where echoes of inherited African traditions resided more resolutely than among many other African Americans across the Southern United States.

Tragedy struck Robert’s family during his infancy, as his father, Thomas Abbott, passed away. Subsequently, his mother, Flora Abbott, a widow, found love anew in the arms of John Sengstacke. John, hailing from Germany with a mixed racial heritage, had recently arrived in the United States, marking the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott: Journey of Learning

Driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, Robert Sengstacke Abbott embarked on his educational journey. He perfected his intellectual abilities during his time at the Hampton Institute and subsequently at the Kent College of Law. These educational experiences laid the foundation for his forthcoming achievements.

The professional path of Robert Sengstacke Abbot

Striving to build a legal profession, Abbott made endeavors in Gary, Indiana, and Topeka, Kansas, over several years. After a period, he journeyed back to his Georgian roots before eventually returning to Chicago. There, he witnessed the transformative impact of the massive influx of migrants from rural Southern areas.

The Chicago Defender

Among Abbot’s exceptional achievements, the creation of the Chicago Defender stands out as a groundbreaking feat. This publication emerged as a potent voice for African Americans, wielding significant influence in shaping public opinion and championing social justice through its unwavering journalism and resolute advocacy.

Through its courageous reporting and unyielding commitment, the Defender provided a beacon of hope for marginalized individuals in the Southern regions. It achieved this by recounting the experiences of those who had previously migrated North, showcasing their stories and encouraging others in the South to follow suit. Abbot utilized the pages of the Chicago Defender to share these narratives, actively promoting what he termed “The Great Northern Drive,” with May 15, 1917, earmarked as the pivotal day for this movement.

Inception of the Bahá’í Faith in Abbott’s Life

Abbott’s introduction to Abdu’l-Bahá, the spiritual leader of the Bahá’í Faith, occurred in 1912 during his coverage of Abdu’l-Bahá’s lecture in Chicago while the latter was on a journey across the Western regions. By 1924, Abbott and his wife’s participation in Bahá’í activities in Chicago had become notable.

A Seed Grows: The Bud Billiken Club and Parade Originating from Abbott and David Kellum’s imaginative narratives in the Defender, the Bud Billiken Club was conceived. This fictional character, “Bud Billiken,” materialized as an inspiration for articles. Consequently, in 1929, Abbott and Kellum launched the Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, which swiftly evolved into an occasion for African Americans to celebrate their connections and foster a profound sense of pride.

Formalizing His Faith In 1934, Abbott took a decisive step by officially embracing the Bahá’í Faith, becoming an integral part of its community.

Influence on the Civil Rights Struggle

Within the context of the Civil Rights Movement, Abbott assumed a pivotal position by confronting prevailing norms and advocating for a fairer society. Through his endeavors, he not only enlightened the populace but also kindled a spirit of dissent against injustice and bias.

Beyond Monetary Valuation: Achievements and Legacy

The immeasurable nature of Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s contributions defies simple monetary assessment. His legacy as a pioneering journalist, activist, and community leader firmly establishes him as an authentic catalyst for change.

The Last Chapter of Robert Sengstacke Abbott:

Passing and Legacy In Chicago, Abbott’s life came to a close in 1940 due to Bright’s disease. His final resting place became the Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island, Illinois. Through his will, ownership of the newspaper was transferred to his nephew, John Henry Sengstacke.


The life of Robert Sengstacke Abbott stands as a testament to the remarkable power that lies within an individual’s unwavering dedication and resolute resolve. His legacy shines as a source of inspiration and hope, spanning from his early days to his pioneering work in journalism and advocacy. His unwavering pursuit of justice, equality, and progress stands as a perpetual reminder that each individual possesses the potential to make a substantial imprint on the world.





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