Black publishers across the country are in Washington on the 192nd birthday of the Black Press, but the history and achievements of Chicago’s Black Press is a story of its own
By Erick Johnson
One Black newspaper led a boycott of a white store owner who discriminated against Blacks. Another newspaper employed mostly Black women, including journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. This newspaper was started after milk trucks wouldn’t allow Black men to serve as drivers in their own neighborhoods. Then, there was the Black magazine that drew global attention to Chicago when it published ghastly photos of a 14-year-old boy whose death helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.
This year, the Black Press turns 192. To an older generation of readers throughout Black America, the heart of the Black Press was in Chicago.
The Chicago Defender. The Chicago Crusader. Ebony. Jet. The Final Call. WVON. Together, they made Chicago the Black media capital of America and the world.
Nowhere else on earth has there been as powerful a group of Black publications that advocated and advanced the struggle for equality through bold editorials, groundbreaking stories and edgy headlines. Chicago’s Black media has arguably made the greatest impact on the Black Press and Black America, more than any American city.
By publishing stories of people of color who overcame racism and poverty to achieve economic success, the city’s Black Press members helped spark the Great Migration, broke the Emmett Till story, heralded the careers of the Jackson Five and Aretha Franklin, and inspired thousands of Blacks.
Part of the lore of Chicago’s Black Press is the forgotten, but interesting history of Chicago’s Black newspapers few readers know existed back in the day. They include the city’s first Black newspaper, the Chicago Conservator, as well as the Chicago Whip and the Chicago Bee.
As Black publishers from across the country convene in Washington for the annual Black Press Week, Chicago’s Black Press remains an aging institution that has a unique and powerful history of its own—one that may put it in a class of its own.
For decades, its headlines and stories captivated Black America and became a powerful voice to help initiate unprecedented change in the struggle for equality in housing, employment and civil rights in Chicago and throughout Black America.
It started in 1878, decades before hundreds of thousands of Blacks began arriving from the South in sweaty boxcar trains. That year, Ferdinand Barnett, a Chicago attorney who was the third Black person to pass the Illinois bar, founded the Chicago Conservator, the city’s first Black newspaper. With its radical stories and editorials on justice and equal rights, the soul of the Conservator reflected the values of Barnett and his famous wife, journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells.
The Conservator folded in 1914, but a harvest of Black publications would, in turn, follow in its footsteps, decades after John B. Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish founded Freedom’s Journal in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1827. While some still exist today, others like the Conservator, folded.
One of them was the Chicago Whip, which was located at 3735 S. State Street. Its first issue was June 24, 1919. Founded by Harvard-trained lawyer Joseph Bibb, the Whip was considered a racially militant newspaper with its, “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” campaign.
The campaign, which advocated boycotting white stores that discriminated against people of color, was instrumental in obtaining over 15,000 jobs in Chicago for Blacks. On July 31, 1930, the Whip’s business manager wrote Sears CEO Julius Rosenwald, urging him to hire Blacks in light of how many Blacks shopped at the store.
He also asked Rosenwald to join many manufacturers around the country in filling out a questionnaire that asked them how many Black employees worked at the business. Two days later, Rosenwald’s secretary responded with a letter, acknowledging that Rosenwald received it. It’s uncertain what developments resulted from the Chicago Whip’s request.
On its masthead, the Whip carried the slogan, “A PAPER WITH A POLICY.”
On March 4, 1932, educator and Civil Rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote a letter to Bibb, who served as editor in addition to being the newspaper’s founder. Du Bois asked Bibb to write an article for The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. Du Bois received manuscripts from several of the 12 Black newspapers across the country from a symposium on Communism. Du Bois said he was expecting manuscripts from four additional Black newspapers, including the Chicago Defender. He was concerned that the Whip would not be represented in the April and May issue of The Crisis. The Whip folded in 1939.
In 1925, the Chicago Bee was founded by Anthony Overton, a banker and food and cosmetics mogul. Located just one block north from the Chicago Whip, the Bee employed mostly Black women, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who lived at 3624 S. King Drive (then known as South Parkway).
Overton wanted a more conservative newspaper that catered to well-educated Blacks, but he had another purpose. He wanted to use the Bee to promote his line of Black-oriented cosmetics for men and women as he did with his defunct Half Century Magazine.
Three years after he founded the Bee, Overton hired South Side architect Erol Smith to design a new building for the newspaper’s operations and eventually his manufacturing business. The three-story, nearly block-long, Art-Deco edifice at 3647 S. State was completed in 1929 at a cost of $200,000 and named the Chicago Bee Building.
Overton often clashed with his editors over the editorial content, but eventually gave them free reign with the editorial content.
Chicago Bee editor James Gentry coined the term, “Bronzeville,” to describe both the skin color of the newly-arriving Blacks from the South and the then-vibrant South Side neighborhood that was flourishing with Black businesses, restaurants and jazz clubs.
The Chicago Bee never took off as Overton had hoped. It had a readership of only about 50,000 at its peak in the mid-1930s. The Great Depression forced Overton to close his other businesses. He died in 1946. The Chicago Bee building at 36th and State remains as a branch of the Chicago Public Library. It is also a Chicago landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Chicago was also the home of the Associated Negro Press, the first national news service for Blacks. It was founded in 1919 by Claude A. Barnett, a young Black entrepreneur who remained its director for the next four-and-a-half decades.
The ANP supplied news stories, opinion columns, feature essays, and reviews of books and movies to Black newspapers throughout the country. The ANP’s service enabled its membership, which included nearly all of the major Black newspapers in the United States, as well as many of the smaller ones, to offer their readers detailed coverage of activities within Black communities across the country.
Barnett retired in 1964, selling the business to Al Duckett, a Black Press veteran from New York. Barnett died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1967. The demise of the ANP followed him several years later.
The oldest surviving Chicago Black publication is the Chicago Defender. Founded in an apartment in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, the Defender, for decades, was considered the most prestigious Black newspaper in America with a circulation of 250,000 readers.
The Defender is often credited with sparking the first wave of the Great Migration. During segregation, working members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters would smuggle stacks of Defender newspapers onto the train and toss them to Black residents in cities where they were banned.
The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), known as the Black Press, was started by Defender Publisher John H. Sengstacke in 1940. Sengstacke served as chairman of the NNPA for many years before his death in 1997.
In 1940, the Chicago Crusader was founded in the now demolished Ida B. Wells housing project on South Parkway, which is today Martin Luther King Drive.
Founders Balm L. Leavell and Joseph H. Jefferson participated in crusades against several businesses, led by the Negro Labor Relations League (NLRL). The organization’s persistence and unwavering commitment to better lives for Black people helped Leavell and Jefferson to successfully advocate and obtain more jobs for African Americans in the trucking industry, including on beer trucks, bread trucks and buses.
Their work was chronicled in a one-page newsletter, which ultimately grew into the New Crusader newspaper in 1940. Its staunch position on improving Black lives through employment drew a loyal and burgeoning readership. Its editorial policy was fearless and took on issues more established Black newspapers shied away from.
In 1961, members of the Nation of Islam headed by Elijah Muhammad persuaded Leavell to start the Gary Crusader, years before Richard G. Hatcher ushered in an era of Black political power as Gary’s first Black mayor.
More than 50 years after Balm Leavell’s death, both the Chicago Crusader and Gary Crusader newspapers are still in operation under Publisher Dorothy R. Leavell.
John H. Johnson was an insurance salesman before he borrowed $500 to launch the Johnson Publishing Company, which published the iconic Ebony in 1945 and Jet magazine in 1951.
Both publications highlighted Black culture, but in 1955, Jet shocked the world after it published the pictures of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy from Chicago whose face was severely disfigured when he was brutally killed by two white men in Money, Mississippi.
His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, held an open-casket funeral to show the world what the men had done to her son. White newspapers that were reluctant to publish the photos, followed suit. In 1969, Ebony’s photographer, Moneta Sleet, won the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of Coretta Scott King and her daughter, Bernice, at the funeral of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2016, Ebony and Jet were sold to a Texas firm, ending an era of a family dynasty.
With the decline of advertising revenues, Chicago’s Black Press is struggling to recapture the magic of its glory days, but its history and national and global impact remain as significant contributions to the Black Press.
Crusader Publisher Leavell’s election as NNPA chairman in 2016 heralded a brighter future on the horizon. Advertising in member publications is slowly growing. The internet publishing scare that saw the mainstream press sell its holdings and file bankruptcy had a lesser effect on the Black Press.
The new dynamic of the Black Press is trending toward incorporating print, digital and social media.