Papers of ‘Chicago Defender’ Founding Family Donated to City Library

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By: E&P Staff

The Chicago Public Library on Wednesday announced the acquisition of a trove of historical documents from the family that launched the Chicago Defender. The archive is described as the largest and most significant collection from the U.S. black press ever donated to a library.

The Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers are a rare archive that languished in 83 boxes Robert Sengstacke inherited from his father John H. Sengstacke, who ran the paper from 1948 until his death in 1997. John H. Sengstacke was the nephew of Robert S. Abbott, who launched the Defender from his kitchen table 104 years ago and grew it to become the most influential black newspaper of its time.

Included in the archive are rare photos of the boxer Jack Johnson, reminiscences of Booker T. Washington, letters from President Harry S. Truman, and correspondence from ordinary African Americans. The archive includes about 4,000 photographs and 100 home movies.

Robert Sengstacke, a photojournalist, donated the archive to the Chicago Public Library, which will house it at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, a branch that includes the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in a story by staff reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika that the collection had been sought by several national institutions including the Smithsonian Institute, which offered to buy it. But Robert Sengstacke concluded the archive should stay in Chicago. (A major piece also appeared in today’s New York Times.)

“The Abbott-Sengstacke papers tell the story of a remarkable family and its role as a pivotal force in the history of our city, our nation, and especially in the history of African Americans,” Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey said in a statement. ‘”The Chicago Public Library is honored to accept this important archive for its collections and to make it freely available to library patrons.'”

Robert Sengstacke donated the archive more than 18 months ago. In the meantime it has been organized by a team of doctoral students from the University of Chicago Associate Professor Jacqueline Goldsby. The university is building a master archive of the photo collection, which will be digitized.

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