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The Defender: A Powerful Voice for Black Americans

The story of Chicago’s The Defender, perhaps America’s preeminent Black newspaper of the 20th century, is the history of race and racism in the city and the nation. It’s been an extraordinarily important publication, an essential voice for Black community and a tireless advocate for racial justice and agency, for over a century. Ethan Michaeli’s hefty book, The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, is a sprawling account of the newspaper, strong on personalities and affection. It is tome at 633 pages, yet is still leaves at least this reader with questions. More than a history of a business, Micheali’s volume shines a provocative light on the intersection of The Defender, those that made it, the stories that it told, and the communities in which it was read.

The Defender was the brain child of Robert Abbott, a fascinating Black entrepreneur from Georgia who visited Chicago’s 1893 World Colombian Exposition as a young man. Among his many skills, he was a talented singer and a member of the Hampton Quartet. Abbott, impressed with the city’s Black professionals and keen on the opportunities he saw in the growing metropolis, decided to move to Chicago and become a lawyer. Plans changed as Abbott’s law career did not take off as expected. Knowing a bit about printing from a relative, Abbott judged that the city’s growing Black community needed a newspaper. Borrowing money and leaning on friends and acquaintances, he started The Defender in 1905 with an initial print run of 300. His offices were in his landlady’s dining room. The paper, with a mission as a defender of Abbott’s race, was truly a visionary enterprise. From those small steps, Abbott’s drive, brilliance and amazing work built the organization and a paper with international impact.

Initially read on the South Side of Chicago, The Defender was passed from reader to reader. Importantly, the newspaper was picked up by Pullman porters, many of whom lived or traveled through Chicago, increasing its scope. Over time, Abbott attracted a cadre outstanding journalists and writers, like Ida B. Wells and Langston Hughes. The paper was tireless in its attention to racism, opportunity and justice. It was relentless in its descriptions and criticisms of lynchings and other injustices, especially in the South. The paper investigated and reported factually racist atrocities and lynchings, in direct contrast to what white publications printed. Abbott and members of the papers were harassed and threatened, but they pressed on, unfazed. The paper’s work accelerated the political and cultural organizations of within Black Chicago, and was an extraordinarily important factor in the Great Migration. Abbott and the paper initiated the Bud Billiken parade in 1929, a celebration that has grown to being the nation’s largest African-American parade. It is a wonderful August event, and Michaeli cleverly draws the reader into his work by opening with a young Barack Obama at the event.

John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew, took over the paper in 1940 followings Abbott’s death. The Defender played a key role in politics and race issues at the city, state and national level through World War II, pushing hard for civil rights and the integration of the military. Facing strong competition from other Black newspaper by this time, Defender journalists and editors were prominent and active. That key scope extended through the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. Political and cultural leaders needed the newspaper’s attention, especially as more Blacks voted and acquired wealth and influence. It is difficult to overstate the key role that The Defender served in keeping Black communities informed and engaged.

Michaeli’s book describes all of this very well. He’s a talented writer with a good eye for detail. Consistently using the paper as a primary source, he has rich material to engage the reader. And as The Defender was active across the continent for decades, there’s more than enough history to reference and recount. Michaeli’s attention to the violence and prejudice that The Defender covered very strong. He appreciates, as did the newspaper’s staff and readership, the harsh realities of Black Americans. He underscores, too, that racial justice was only achieved through suffering and struggle. The book offers a powerful reminder of just how constant racial bigotry and violence were a prominent throughout the twentieth century.

On the other hand, the lengthy book could have been more effective with greater attention to context and history. Michaeli does reference some of the important historical scholarship that helps to explain the big picture, but I did not come away with the sense that he was comfortable crafting his history in that realm. I understand that this would have changed the book. Nonetheless, for those not familiar with twentieth century American history, or the history of Chicago, The Defender moves quickly and makes assumptions. Some of this is simply how the author approached the material. Michaeli, a white University of Chicago English major, took a job as a copy editor at the Defender a year after graduation in 1991. He stayed at the paper for five years, working his way up to journalist, and learning about Chicago, racism, and American history along the way. Five hundred pages into the book – its structure is chronological – Michaeli introduces himself, writes about his ignorance of race and history, and explains his journey to understanding through his job and the work of the newspaper. As he notes, the experience “filled in so many blanks in American history left by the textbooks of my youth and showed me how things really work.”

At the start of the 1900s, America had more than 20,000 newspapers. Many of these publications represented communities ignored by mainstream presses. Their function was much more than reporting the news. These newspapers were critical in the development of group identity and political mobilization, particularly as the country wrestled with issues of suffrage, political participation, and the meaning of being an American. Now read mostly by graduate students, the vast majority of these papers have long been assigned to archives, their readership and influence waning over the decades. The Defender had a much greater impact than most and has lasted longer than most. It still exists online and still has an important voice. Michaeli’s book goes far in telling that story.

David Potash

Rethinking Rufus

A friend and colleague recently loaned me Thomas A. Foster’s Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men. The first monograph to tackle the difficult issue of sexual violence against enslaved men in the United States, it is an important study. It is also chilling and horrific, bringing a deeper and different kind of understanding to the evil that was slavery.

Foster is a historian and dean at Howard University, a scholar who works on issues of sexuality, gender and slavery. Foster knows both theory and history, and is as comfortable with primary sources as he is with queer theory. That range and skill set gives Foster the ability to re-examine and re-cast historical accounts through different eyes and with different tools. Perhaps the best example of that is drawn from the book’s very title.

Rose Williams was a former slave who was interviewed by the WPA in the 1930s as part of a slave narrative project. These interviews and other first-hand accounts of slavery are well-known to historians. Williams’ account, which the book includes in its entirety, tells of her forced pregnancy by Rufus, another slave, who she characterizes as a “bully.” Williams had two children by Rufus, her first at the age of sixteen. Once freed from bondage, Williams also freed herself from Rufus. It’s a terrible account of a woman’s hardship. Foster explain the story and also looks at it from a different perspective, that of the enslaved man. Rufus had no agency in the matter. As a slave, he was forced into the relationship. Male slaves had extremely limited agency when it came to issues of sexuality, as the book explains. Rufus’s body was a symbol and site of enslaved violation.

Rethinking Rufus’s chapters look at key themes without following a traditional chronology. Foster draws from a wide range of primary sources, from court cases to songs to art. Chapter One examines the objectification and distortions around black men’s bodies. Chapter Two explores manly autonomy and intimacy; families and more “traditional” forms of living a male ideal as husband and father were impossible in slavery. The ugliness of coerced reproduction is explored in the third chapter. Foster provides an overview of the debates with scholarship over the years, sketches the ways that the issue was interpreted, and concludes that the practice was widespread and a key component in the narrative of pain and suffering of slaver. Chapter Five focuses on white women and enslaved black men; the penultimate chapter looks for ways of exploring same-sex relationships in slavery. The historical record does not offer the scholar much of direct sources. Foster’s conclusion calls for a rethinking of the community in slavery.

The book is well-researched, well-written and well-argued. I expect that it will be taught for many years to come. It is also an important reminder that as we do more research and more work on slavery, the more we are aware of its lasting evil.

David Potash

Brown in Chicago: A Different History

Popular culture can reduce race to a black-white issue. It is not. A thoughtful look makes clear that race in the US is complex with a complicated history. When I taught history and immigration, issues of race and racism were always part of the conversation. Students worked to identify similarities of experience across times and groups, but we tried to be vigilant noting importance of looking at the unique challenges and opportunities facing each grouping of people.

The history of Latinos/as calls out for special attention. Neither “black” nor “white,” the emerging Hispanic population in the United States has a unique history or, more properly, histories. For example, Mexican Americans were categorized as “white” through a nineteenth century treaty and only formally first identified through the Census bureau in 1980 with a question asking for “Spanish origin.” Inhabitants of Puerto Rico are citizens. The role of Latinos/as has not been stable and it has shifted through time and across areas.

Brown in the Windy CityLilia Fernandez, a professor at the Ohio State University, teaches this lesson very effectively in Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. It is closely researched, well-written, and an essential work to understanding the city and its racial dynamics. It sits at the intersection of many vibrant areas of research: immigration, labor history, identity politics, neighborhood activism, race studies, gender history, and urban history. Every library on Chicago history should contain this book.

Windy City opens by explaining Latino/a immigration to Chicago from an economic perspective. Fernandez sketches out the reasons that people from Mexico and Puerto Rico made the journey, emphasizing that the issue of citizenship and status made for different opportunities and different challenges. Depending upon their skin color, connections, and local environment, these immigrants to the city faced a range of responses and racial attitudes. Jobs with state sponsorship and support made immigration attractive. Mexican immigrants were often in the US through the bracero program, which was developed to help address labor shortages. Similarly, the government of Puerto Rico worked to sponsor labor leaving the island for jobs on the mainland. Opportunities were plentiful in the years after World War II, but by the 1960s jobs were starting to leave Chicago. The drop was 13% from 1960 t0 1970 and continued in further decades. Massive numbers of jobs were instead created in Chicago’s suburbs. The most noticeable shift was in the steady decline of Chicago manufacturing. Many of the Latino/a immigrants worked, or tried to work, in these sectors.

The book, though, is less about economics than about place considered broadly. Fernandez wants to understand what physical places the immigrants moved to and why. She examines how they established individual and group identity through building community. She also cleverly pivots the concept to study what place in the social and political order of the city that the Latino/a immigrants took. The hub of Latino/a immigration in the 1940s and 1950s was the Near West Side. Hull House, Jane Addams’ famous Progressive Era settlement house, was at the center of this rapidly changing community.

Demographic changes did not take place without human influence and intervention. The Latino/a communities were part of a larger racial redistribution of the city. City leaders were very conscious of who lived where. The Near West Side was in play in a larger game of power. Despite local neighborhood activism, the area was destroyed and redeveloped through highway construction, the siting of the University of Illinois Chicago, and local incentives for business and housing. Residents had to move. The impact of those decisions is evident today.

The Puerto Rican community resettled mostly to the Near North Side, then to West Town and Humboldt Park. From that context and history, it is easier to understand the evolution of the Young Lords Organization. Fernandez covers this well-known history of non-violent street gang to neighborhood activism very well. She also details the Mexican community movement to Pilsen, the area around 18th Street and then beyond. From these two intercity migrations the Puerto Rican community learned grassroots activism and gained political power, particularly through decades of strife with abusive police. In Pilsen, the Mexican community grew in tandem with a larger Chicano movement.

Fernandez provides some very interesting information on pan-Latino/a organization, with special attention to gender. Her work on women’s activism and the founding of Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latina women in action) is fascinating.

Fernandez observes that some Latinos/as tried to address their role in the city through the lens of ethnicity, not race. It was a strategy that ultimately was not successful and did not have political clout. Latino/a neighborhoods were situated in buffer spaces between blacks and whites. This was an open secret in Chicago politics. Groups needed to organize in order to compete for resources. Once group identity was asserted – through voting, marches, and activism, the established power structure took notice. It is a pattern seen again and again in Chicago.

A political theorist might argue that in a pluralistic power structure, survival depends upon effective mobilization. The larger question, and one that Fernandez does not raise, is why Chicago’s default organizational pattern is pluralistic. Missing from her narrative as well as much of Chicago’s history is a sense of the shared or common good. I hope that greater understanding of the challenges that different groups face may help with that more idealistic goal.

David Potash