Born in 1870 to formerly enslaved parents, Abbott attended Hampton Institute in Virginia and then went on to graduate from Kent Law School (now Chicago-Kent College of Law) in 1899 In May 1905 he started publishing the Chicago Defender In the early years he personally sold subscriptions to the paper and advertising by going door to door 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.
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 in 1940, with the Defender still a success When Robert was eight years old, he worked in the summer as an errand boy in a grocery store In order to teach him work ethics, he mother had him pay ten cents a week for room and board In 1886, Robert entered Beach Institute to prepare for college He attended Claflin University and Hampton Institute and worked as an apprentice at the "Savannah Echo" newspaper His stepfather published a local paper called the "Woodville Times" Abbott experienced difficulties at Hampton because of his lack of social skills He was befriended by a white teacher, Hollis Burke Frissell, who helped him adjust.
Abbott recalled that Frissell told him that, "I should prepare myself for the struggle ahead that in whatever field I should decide to dedicate my services, I should be able to point the light not only to my own people but to white people as well" Abbott completed his printing course at Hampton in 1893 and his academic work in 1896 Abbott enrolled in Kent College of Law in 1897 He graduated with a bachelor of law degree on May 20, 1899, the only African American in the class It was difficult for Abbott to practice law in Chicago because of racial discrimination Instead of pursuing law as a career he obtained a card from the printer's union and began planning to launch a newspaper The first issue of Abbott's paper, the "Chicago Defender," appeared on May 5, 1905 In 1912, the Defender began selling on the newsstands Abbott sold his paper, obtained advertisements and collected the news The newspaper's first headquarters was at 3159 State Street, which was owned by his landlord, Henrietta Lee, where it remained for 15 years.
Henrietta Lee was a surrogate mother to Abbott and assisted him in the developing stages of his newspaper Her daughter became a long-time employee of the "Defender" Abbott ran the paper virtually by himself He received volunteer contributions by reporters, and railroad workers sent him printed material left on the trains for his news articles In 1909, Abbott launched a campaign against vice in the black community In 1910, Abbott hired J Hockley Smiley as managing editor Smiley was instrumental in changing the format of the newspaper He often printed sensational headlines in red and established sports, editorial, theater and society departments After Smiley's death in 1915, Abbott secured associates to help him with the paper.
The "Defender's" circulation had reached 230,000 by 1920, two-thirds being sold outside of Chicago In his newspaper, Abbott supported the migration of blacks from the South to the North His campaign was called "The Great Northern Drive" n 1921, Abbott began printing the paper with a high-speed rotary printing press at a new location, 3435 Indiana Avenue The paper's circulation increased and Abbott prospered He included articles on lynchings and racial conflict and added topics such as fashion, arts and blacks outside the United States He received many honors and awards, including honorary degrees from colleges such as Wilberforce and Morris Brown He became president of the Hampton alumni association and a member of the board of trustees Abbott married Helen Thornton Morrison on September 10, 1918 They traveled toured Brazil in 1923 and Europe in 1929.
He was divorced from Helen in 1933 and married Edna Denison in 1934 It was known that neither of his wives loved him He did have over 100 relatives who loved him and to whom he was generous He educated and trained his nephew, John Herman Henry Sengstacke, the son of his half-brother Alexander, to take over the "Defender" Abbott died on February 29, 1940 A large funeral was held at Metropolitan Community Church and he was buried in Lincoln Cemetery The paper was taken over by his nephew, John Sengstacke Abbott was a shrewd businessman and skillful at addressing the needs and opinion of the black community He is remembered as one of the major black spokesmen of his time .