Today is November 12 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you working on making this a better place?” Entrepreneur and publisher Robert Abbott learned how to navigate the chaos and became one of the nation’s most prominent post-slavery black millionaires. Abbott proclaimed: “No greater glory, no greater honor, is the lot of man departing than a feeling possessed deep in his heart that the world is a better place for his having lived.”
So yes, you can navigate the chaos, translate one dream after another into reality, commit to a long-term daily grind and still make this world a better place. In fact, for some people, as exemplified by Abbott, the pursuit of success is intermingled with the need to make the world a better place.
Born on December 24, 1870 to formerly enslaved parents in St. Simons, Georgia, Robert Sengstacke Abbott attended Hampton Institute in Virginia and then went on to graduate from Kent Law School (now Chicago-Kent College of Law in Illinois) in 1899. The son of slaves, Abbott grew up with a half-German stepfather whose relatives eventually joined the Third Reich during the 1930s.
Ironically enough, young Robert was taught to hate racial injustice, despite encountering it at every turn in his life, from his early foray into the printing business to his time in law school in Chicago, all the way to religious institutions. In May 1905 he started publishing the Chicago Defender, one of the most prominent Black newspapers in the country at that time. In the early years he personally sold subscriptions to the paper and advertising by going door to door. What started off as 25 cents in capital and a four-page pamphlet distributed strictly in black neighborhoods quickly grew in readership.
The paper attacked racial injustice, particularly lynching in the south. The Defender did not use the words “Negro” or “black” in its pages. Instead, African Americans were referred to as “the Race” and black men and women as “Race men and Race women.” Many places in the south effectively banned the paper, especially when, during World War I, Abbott actively tried to convince southern blacks to migrate to the north. Abbott managed to get railroad porters to carry his papers south and he ran articles, editorials, cartoons — even train schedules and job listings — to convince the Defender’s southern readers to come north.
The “Great Northern Migration,” as it was called in the Defender, resulted in more than one million blacks migrating north, about 100,000 of them coming to Chicago. The Defender was passed from person to person and read aloud in barbershops and churches. The paper’s rise in stature and circulation was due in large part to Abbott being a natural hustler. The Defender was initially banned in the South due to its encouragement of African-Americans to abandon the area and head North, but the Georgia native used a network of black railroad porters (who would eventually become the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) to distribute the paper in Southern states. It is estimated that at its height each paper sold was read by four to five African Americans, putting its readership at over 500,000 people each week.
In the burgeoning economic times of the 1920s, with hundreds of new products and the growth of advertising, the Defender became an economic success and Abbott became one of the first African American millionaires. He died in Chicago on February 29, 1940 at the age of 69, with the Defender still a success. Without Abbott, there would be no Essence, no Jet (and its Beauty of the Week), no Black Enterprise, no The Source, no The Undefeated.
Through his ability to navigate the chaos and publish a leading newspaper that focused on the life of African Americans, Abbott became a millionaire and in turn, also helped create a better place for having lived.
How often are you working on making this a better place?