Sengstacke, John 1912–1997
John Sengstacke 1912–1997
Newspaper publisher, editor
John Sengstacke was unquestionably one of the most important figures in the history of African American journalism. As editor and publisher of the Chicago Defender and other black newspapers, he played a key role in keeping African Americans informed about the events that affected their lives. His influence stretched far beyond that, however. Sengstacke had the ear of presidents, business leaders, and community activists of all races. Although his newspaper chain had declined sharply in stature by the time of his death in 1997, he stands as a central figure in the creation of a nationwide African American journalistic community.
Sengstacke was born on November 25, 1912, in Savannah, Georgia. He was descended from a long line of Protestant ministers that included his father, the Reverend Herman Alexander Sengstacke. His mother, Rose Mae (Davis) Sengstacke was a missionary worker. Sengstacke grew up in near by Woodville, one of six children, three boys and three girls. Sengstacke’s father, in addition to his work as a minister and teacher, ran a small weekly newspaper called the Woodville West End Post. Working at the paper since he was a young boy, Sengstacke learned the newspaper business from the bottom up, beginning as a lowly printer’s devil—apprentice— and advancing until he was his father’s chief assistant.
Meanwhile, Sengstacke’s uncle, Robert S. Abbott, had founded a paper of his own, the Chicago Defender, up North. Abbott took an interest in his young nephew early on, and saw that he received the kind of education that would enable him to inherit his burgeoning publishing empire. After finishing his elementary education in Savannah, Sengstacke moved on to the Knox Institute in Athens, Georgia, then to Brick (North Carolina) Junior College. He graduated from Brick in 1929, then enrolled at Hampton Institute in Virginia, Abbott’s alma mater, where he majored in business administration and wrote for the school paper, the Hampton Script. During summers, he would help out at the Defender and take printing and journalism classes at various Chicago schools.
Sengstacke graduated from Hampton in 1933, and the following year, after a bit of post-graduate work at Ohio
At a Glance…
Born John Herman Henry Sengstacke on November 25, 1912, in Savannah, GA; son of Herman Alexander (a minister and newspaper publisher) and Rosa Mae (Davis) Sengstacke (a missionary worker); married Myrtle Elizabeth Picou, 1939 (divorced); children: John Herman, Robert Abott, Lewis Willis; Education : Hampton Institute, B.S., 1934; attended Northwestern University and OhioState University. Religion : Congre-gationalist. Politics : Democrat. Died on May 28, 1997 in Chicago, IL.
Career : Robert S. Abbott Publishing Co., assistant to president, 1933, vice president and manager, 1934-40, president and general manager, 1940-97, editor of Chicago Defender, 1940-97; Sengstacke Newspapers, president and chairman; founded Negro Newspaper Publishers’Association, 1940; U.S. Office of War Information, member of advisory committee, 1941; Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces, member, 1948; New Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces, 1962; U.S. Assay Commission, 1964; United Service Organizations, board of governors, 1965-71; National Alliance of Businessmen, executive board, 1968.
Awards : National Urban League, Two Friends award, 1950; Hampton Alumni Award, 1954; American Jewish Committee, Mass Media award; Commander of Star of Africa (Liberia), 1958; Award of Excellence, National Council of Negro Women, 1975; International Man of the Year, Biographical Centre of Campridge, England, 1992.
State University, he went to work for the Defender full-time, with the title of vice president and general manager of the Abbott Publishing Company. By this time, Abbott had built a formidable reputation in the world of black journalism. His paper had helped influence huge waves of Southern blacks to migrate into Northern cities after World War I. By the 1930s Abbott was ready to expand. He launched the Louisville (Kentucky) Defender in 1933, and in 1936 he started the Detroit-based Michigan Chronicle. As the scope of his company grew, he groomed Sengstacke to take over the operation.
Sengstacke’s role at the company increased through the rest of the 1930s. He wrote editorials and articles for all three papers. He was also one of the chief organizers of the newly created Negro Newspaper Publisher’s Association (NNPA), now called the National Newspaper Publisher’s Association. Abbott died in 1940, andSengstacke, at the age of 28, took over as president of the chain, though not without a battle with Abbott’s widow over control of the company. By this time the Chicago Defender was widely regarded as one of the most important black newspapers in the country, and had an estimated value of $300,000.
Like other newspaper editors, Sengstacke was exempted from military service during World War II. He volunteered to serve as chairman of the U.S. Office of War Information advisory committee on the Negro press. His paper both chronicled the achievements of black soldiers, and exposed discrimination that took place in the military. Sengstacke also personally influenced President Harry Truman’s decision to integrate the armed forces.
In 1944 Sengstacke began the first of his three terms as president of the NNPA. In that position, he helped bring about a number of changes in the black publishing industry, including the transition from subscriptions to advertising as the most important source of financial support. Sengstacke spent the post-war years getting further involved in community and national affairs. He lobbied for the creation of jobs for African Americans in the postal service, and he was a key force in the demolition of the color barrier in major league baseball. The Defender’s Harry McAlpin was the first African American journalist to cover the White House.
Sengstacke added another paper, the Tri-State Defender, published in Memphis and covering Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, to the chain in 1952. In 1956 he converted his flagship Chicago Defender from a weekly to a daily newspaper, one of only three black dailies in existence at the time. During this period he also began to focus more of the paper’s attention on Chicago issues, without completely eliminating coverage of national and international events. This approach both boosted circulation and made it easier to bring in advertising dollars.
Sengstacke added several more links to his chain in 1966 with the purchase of the Pittsburgh Courier Company, which consisted of the Pittsburgh Courier and seven other papers. By this time, however, the era of the great Negro newspapers was already in decline. Ironically, it was the very cultural change that Sengstacke had spent his career battling for, integration, that was perhaps most responsible for the papers’ loss of stature. Whereas newspapers like the Defender were once the only places in which great black writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Vernon Jarrett, could be published, by the 1960s mainstream publications were beginning to embrace them.
By the 1970s, many African American readers were also dismayed at Sengstacke’s insistence on backing white Democratic politicians rather than progressive black candidates. Meanwhile, advertisers were putting there money into mainstream papers rather than Black ones, whose readership numbers were nosediving. Speaking at the 40th annual Black publishers convention in Chicago in 1980, Sengstacke declared that on issues of racism and discrimination, “the Black press recently has not been as vocal as it should be.… As a result, our circulation is limited to the restricted perimeter of the Black community and our political influence is waning.”
The Defender’s journalistic quality was also becoming suspect by this time. As Laura Washington wrote in the Chicago Tribune in December of 1997, “Typos, factual errors, and just plain old bad journalism became commonplace, earning the Defender the nickname “the offender.” In spite of the paper’s decline, however, Sengstacke himself remained a huge presence in Chicago’s black community. In 1975 he was named one of the 100 most influential black Americans by Ebony magazine. He was honored by the National Council of Negro Women with an “Award of Excellence” the same year.
By the 1990s, circulation of the Chicago Defender had dipped to 25,000, from a peak of 160,000 in the 1940s. The Sengstacke chain as a whole, however, remained the biggest chain of African American-owned newspapers in the United States. In 1992 Sengstacke was named “International Man of the Year” by the International Biographical Centre of Cambridge, England, in recognition of his decades of community service. In Chicago, he led a drive to build Provident Hospital, and later after it had closed he worked to have it reopened and modernized under the auspices of Cook County Hospital.
Sengstacke died on May 28, 1997 in Chicago at the age of 84, of complications from a stroke. Under the terms of a trust he had created more than twenty years earlier, he left instructions that the Chicago Defender and his other newspapers be sold after his death. In spite of its decline over the past few decades, the Defender remained at the time of Sengstacke’s death an influential publication among African Americans in Chicago. Regardless of the paper’s future in the hands of its new ownership, its past, and that of its longtime publisher, loom large in African American history.
Ottley, Roi, The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbot, Regnery, 1955.
Wolseley, Roland E., The Black Press, U.S.A., Iowa State University Press, 1976, pp. 57-8.
Chicago Sun-Times, May 29, 1997, p. 3.
Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1997, p. 1; December 22, 1997, p. 21.
Crain’s Chicago Business, August 25, 1997, p. 1.
Jet, July 17, 1980, p. 6; June 16, 1997, p. 4.
New York Times, May 30, 1997, p. D17.
New York Times Magazine, January 4, 1998, p. 27.
Tri-State Defender (Memphis), March 21, 1992, p. 3.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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