Back where the Defender began

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Ethan Michaeli
  • Ethan Michaeli
The greatest days of the Chicago Defender are long past. The latest bad news was reported in late October by the Sun-Times. The paper's "months behind on its rent," wrote Maudlyne Ihejirika, and just laid off executive editor Lou Ransom, news editor Rhonda Gillespie, and a noneditorial employee—a sixth of its 18-person staff. Its weekly circulation was about 16,000—this at a paper that in its day was a daily with a circulation above 100,000 and a reach so vast that it was virtually the house organ of the Great Migration of blacks from the south to Chicago.

Says the Encyclopedia of Chicago, "Setting departure dates and showing pictures of the best schools, parks, and houses in Chicago next to pictures of the worst conditions in the South, the Defender stirred migration fever across much of the South. Southern cities banned the newspaper and exacted serious penalties on anyone found distributing or reading it."

I asked Ethan Michaeli, who's writing a history of the Defender, to comment on the layoffs. What about Teesee's Town? he wanted to know. "To me, she's the paper."

Teesee's Town survives. It's a society column written by Theresa Fambro Hooks, who joined the Defender in 1961. Teesee's Town headlines that I came across at the Defender website include:

Jamell Meeks chairs Walgreens-sponsored ‘First Ladies Health Day’

Chaka Khan, Marian Jones keynote women’s retreat series

India.Arie, Mary Mary, Bootsy Collins among headliners at African Fest

eta’s 40th Anniversary Gala honors founder Abena Joan Brown

Michaeli was a Defender reporter in the early 90s. He left to found Residents' Journal for the Chicago Housing Authority, and when the CHA stopped funding it in 1999, the staff created a not-for-profit corporation, We the People Media, to keep the Journal going. Michaeli is the executive director.

He's been working on his book about the Defender for almost two years.

Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the Defender on a card table in a rented room in 1905. This was several years before the Great Migration began, and Abbott was writing for a small, stable black population of about 40,000. Michaeli pointed me to page 54 of Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, the classic 1945 report by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton. Page 54 gives readers the flavor of headlines in the early Defender. For instance, these heads all appeared in the same December 1908 edition of the paper:

Chicago Lady Elk Commissioned to Set Up Lodges in the South

The Grand Lads Club Gives a Social

Chorale Study Group Announces Sullivan's Oratorio, "The Prodigal Son," to Be Given at Institutional Church

The Basketball League Announces Games for 1909

Says Michaeli, "The paper has almost gone back to full circle. It started as a gossip page for a small circle of blacks in Chicago before the Great Migration. The beginnings of great migration were 1911, 1913-'14-'15. By then the paper was becoming a firebrand against redlining and jim crow. That always was there—but at the beginning the real core of the Defender was 'Mrs. Jones is sick,' 'Mrs. Jones is gone on a trip to Detroit.' It stuns me that it's come all the way back to where it started."

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