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At its height, The Chicago Defender was the most influential black newspaper in the U.S. But if you want a print copy, you'd better hurry. As Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch podcast reports, after today, the paper is online only.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The Chicago Defender was born on the kitchen table of its publisher, lawyer Robert Sengstacke Abbott in 1905. Abbott was a race man. He thought there was a need for a newspaper with a black perspective.
PAUL GARDULLO: It challenged, in some ways, the stories that were coming out of traditional white press.
BATES: That's Paul Gardullo. He created a permanent exhibition on The Defender for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He says the museum thought it was important that The Defender be honored for what it did best.
GARDULLO: Telling truthful stories around lynching, around black social and economic progress and limitations that were not showing up in other places.
BATES: The Defender had bright scarlet headlines and front-page update boxes announcing the tally of black people killed by racial violence in a day or a week. And it had influence far beyond Chicago, says Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs.
ALLYSON HOBBS: It was certainly national in its reach, and it also was a paper that really connected black Americans all across the country.
BATES: That reach, Hobbs says, was extended with the help of black railroad workers, especially Pullman porters who quietly placed stacks of the paper in overlooked corners of their southbound trains.
HOBBS: I've heard stories of people who would know what time the train was coming in, and they would immediately grab the paper off of the train and begin to distribute it clandestinely in black communities.
BATES: A mere four decades after the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved black Americans, most still lived in the South, so The Defender was read and passed on from neighbor to neighbor. Sometimes parts of it were read aloud in church and, says Allyson Hobbs, publisher Robert Abbott was urging them to come north.
HOBBS: And he uses sort of Egyptian style kind of Exodus imagery and begins to kind of paint the north as a promised land.
BATES: Or at least a promise of a more free life than the one they were living in the South. There would still be segregation, but there would also be jobs since just before World War I, the flow of cheap immigrant labor from Europe slowed. Black Southerners by the tens of thousands harkened to Abbott's call to go north. The Defender was instrumental in showing where job and housing opportunities and social services were in Chicago. White businessmen welcomed the cheap black labor, but many were wary of The Defender's advocacy. Historian Timuel Black Jr. came to Chicago as an infant. He remembers as a child the advice the newly arrived black folks got from the ones already living there.
TIMUEL BLACK, JR: If you're reading The Chicago Defender, put it in front of the Tribune so that you won't be harassed by reading the negro newspaper.
BATES: In the end, The Defender suffered from the same conditions many American newspapers did - the economy, changing habits, the new technology. But it will live on online to serve its readers and at the Smithsonian where publisher Robert Abbott's desk is permanently enshrined in the new museum on the Mall. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.