The Chicago Defender, also known as the “World’s Greatest Weekly,” encouraged over a million African Americans living in the South to migrate to urban cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, New York between 1915 and 1925. Founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, it was the largest and best selling black newspaper in the first three decades of the twentieth century.
Letters to Abbott confirm the Defender’s importance for southern African Americans pushed to the North by Jim Crow racism and pulled by labor opportunities. These letters offer great insight into the everyday lives of Black men and women hoping that the Defender would be their ticket to a different life.
Like the letters, the “Standing Dealers” map sheds light on the deep significance the Defender had for African Americans. The map represents a very small selection of individuals and businesses who sold the Defender in 1919 and was generated from a list included in a microfilm collection titled, Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans, 1917-1925: The First World War, the Red Scare and the Garvey Movement edited by Theodore Kornwibel. The original list is located at the National Archives and Records Administration.
Kornweibel reveals that the Bureau of Investigations (later named the Federal Bureau of Investigations – the FBI) began surveilling the Defender six months before World War I in the fall of 1916. The U.S. government viewed the Defender and its strident criticism of racism and discrimination against African Americans with great suspicion, suspecting that the paper was under a foreign influence determined to overthrow the country. Despite the war’s end in 1918, the Federal government maintained a vigilant watch over many Black newspapers including, and perhaps the most, over the Defender. The government justified the persistent surveillance with their concern of a growing communist threat. In 1919, the Bureau managed to steal a Defender’s subscribers list, which also contained a “Standing Dealers List.”
The names and addresses of dealers were taken from the list and compiled and entered into a spreadsheet. Some of the dealers’ names on the list are illegible due to the poor quality of the microfilm format resulting in a list that is a much smaller segment of the total numbers of businesses and individuals who sold the Defender in 1919. This number is actually in the thousands and can be found on the original list. Roi Ottley notes that at its peak circulation, the Defender had 2,359 individual agent-correspondents selling the paper throughout the United States. Efforts are being made to obtain a better reproduction of the list and complete the Standing Dealer’s map as well as develop a subscribers’ list map.
The Chicago Defender’s Standing Dealers
The image of the newsboy is an iconic image in the American collective memory and the history of journalism. Crying out “Extra! Extra! Read All Bout It!” to inspire passerby in cities to stop and purchase a newspaper, newsboys played an important role in increasing newspapers’ circulation. This was certainly the case for the Defender in the early twentieth century. By 1920, the Defender had 563 newsboys located across black communities in Chicago. Abbott, in an effort to encourage newsboys to sell as many papers as possible, published the picture of any boy who sold over one hundred papers per week. Newsboys, however, were an ineffective system for selling the Defender outside of the city. They contributed very little to the two-thirds of the Defender’s circulation which was located outside of Chicago by World War I. 1 Instead, an intricate communication system, of which newspaper dealers played a vital part, made the Defender the best selling black paper in the nation in the early twentieth century.
If newsboys were key to the Defender’s success in and around Chicago, then Pullman porters, were instrumental in increasing circulation outside of Chicago, specifically the South. Pullman Porters were African American men hired to assist railroad passengers with their baggage and personal needs. Many of these men lived in Chicago when they were not traveling all over the country aboard trains. Abbott, recognizing the importance of Pullman porters, advocated for a 10 percent increase in salary for porters in 1916. 2 Actions such as this, along with many Porters’ genuine high regard for the paper, encouraged the railroad workers to take extra copies of the Defender and pass them out along their routes. This was no easy task for many Southern towns attempted to ban and regulate the distribution of the Defender. The Defender’s successful radical calls to African Americans’ to protest with their feet and move from the oppression they faced in the South alarmed white business owners and landowners dependent on cheap black labor. Many Pullman Porters who regularly smuggled newspapers under the watchful eyes of whites into Southern towns, then, risked bodily harm and their lives to pass out the Defender.
Southern speaking tours by Defender representative and columnist, Roscoe Conkling Simmons also promoted the paper. Described by the paper as “America’s Greatest Orator” Simmons was a regular columnist and was often featured on the paper’s front page. With this type of status audiences throughout the South accorded him celebrity status. Numerous Defender articles in the early twentieth century reported on the large crowds that flocked to Simmons’ speeches. While traveling, Simmons often connected with local ministers and spoke in churches. This is hardly surprising as the church was one of the main places that readers could acquire the paper. Growing up in the South, Abbott understood that ministers were central to communities there and regularly sent them letters, asking ministers to recommend someone in the area to sell the paper. 3 Yet, in many cases, Abbott’s request was unnecessary as people often wrote into the Defender from all over the country requesting to become agent correspondents and news dealers. Just like churches, newspaper dealers of all types were foundational in the circulation of the Defender.
Defender news dealers dotted the United States map in 1919. To sell the Defender amounted to a great deal of prestige for the individuals who chose to sell the paper. By the same token, names on the “Standing Dealers” list suggest that already established and elite African Americans may have been more likely to volunteer to sell the paper to promote the Defender’s racial politics in their communities. In many instances, agents often became correspondents either contributing news from their region or serving as a regular columnist.
This may have been the case with Katherine Kent-Lambert who is listed on the map as K.K. Lambert in Birmingham, Alabama. Kent-Lambert was a businesswoman and civic leader for many years in the city. Married to William Lambert, a barber, Kent-Lambert was often observed driving her Roadster throughout the city, making it likely that she was of some means prior to selling the Defender. According to Kent-Lambert’s obituary, she was credited for bringing the paper to Birmingham in 1917 and ran a bookstore where she sold the paper. By November 1919, a regular column written by Lambert, titled “What’s Happening in Birmingham” and “Birmingham News” appeared in the paper. The column ran for almost thirty years, ending in 1948.
Russell C. Caution, who can be found on the map in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was also a columnist. He wrote a column for the Atlantic City Gazette Review for many years. Caution was a local printer and distributor of Black newspapers and magazines and proprietor of Victor Press located at 1623 Arctic Avenue and later 1027 Arctic Avenue. 4 Caution was responsible for introducing the Defender to eastern rural communities from Maryland through New Jersey. As members of several civic organizations, Caution and his wife, Margaret Lee were a prominent and well-respected couple.
Harold E.Finley from Patlaka, Florida was also an accomplished individual listed as a dealer. Finley was a famous African American Zoologist who held academic positions at a variety of institutions including as professor and head of Biology at Atlanta University from 1938-1947 and head of the Department of Zoology at Howard University between.1947 and 1969. The Defender reported in 1915 that Finley, who was 10 at the time, was a “hustling” agent. By 1919 Finley was 14 and was listed as selling 100 copies of the Defender per week.
The map provides a greater insight into the types of establishments sold the Defender the early twentieth 20th century. Barbershops and hair salons, poolrooms, grocery stores, record stores and restaurants all sold the paper. These spaces, however, also served as community gathering places where a person might purchase one paper and spend time discussing and sharing it with other town members.
E.K. Thumm’s establishment was one of those places. Located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Thumm was white merchant located on Wylie Avenue in the Hill district, the historic African American community in the city. In the early twentieth century Thumm’s store was the center of the neighborhood, featuring two phones that many members of the community used to conduct business. It was also a popular place for railroad workers to patronize when they passed through Pittsburgh. The store was so popular that the Pittsburgh Courier, the black paper of record and a major competitor of the Defender featured a weekly column called “Thumm’s Dope.” In a issue dated December 19, 1914, the Defender reported that Thumm, “broke the record” for selling the most copies of the Defender in Pittsburgh. 5
In Shreveport, Louisiana Robert Gilmore owned the Gilmore newsstand, which was a regular gathering spot for reporters, police and the reading public for over fifty years. Another long time white news dealer was Chas De Lauer from Oakland California. These news dealers pose interesting questions: What did it mean for whites to sell the Defender, particularly in the South during the Jim Crow era? Were these dealers selling the paper purely for economic reasons or did it suggest their support for the paper’s politics?
Black entrepreneurs also made the Defender central to the services they provided. Jesse Johnson is listed in St. Louis Missouri. Johnson was an entrepreneur who owned a record store, the Deluxe Music Store behind the Booker T. Washington Vaudeville Theater and later moved to Jefferson Avenue. Johnson also owned a cab company and restaurant, called “Jesse’s Deluxe” cafe. Prominent black musicians and singers such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington used Johnson to promote their performances.
WM Hall of Dayton, Ohio was a prominent African American businessman who owned a billiard hall with six tables. He also owned a newsstand where cigars, tobacco products and soft drinks were sold. B. F. Tutt owned a barbershop at Western Avenue and Columbia Street in Seattle and was a founding member of the city’s NAACP. An advertisement for the shop stated that it sold the “latest race papers.” 6
In 1919, by virtue of selling the Defender, the U.S. government suspected that individuals and businesses on the Dealer list might have been participating in subversive acts. Ultimately, the government failed to make the case that the Defender and its representatives, and any other black periodicals for that matter, were actually involved in action against the government beyond a staunch critique.
- James Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989, 74. ↩
- Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, 78. ↩
- Roi. Ottley. The Lonely Warrior, the Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott. Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1955, 133. ↩
- Boyd’s Atlantic City Directory, 1920. ↩
- “E.K. Thumm Record Breaking NewsDealer.” Chicago Defender, December 19, 1914, 1. ↩
- Cayton’s Weekly, October 27, 1917. ↩