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Thursday, April 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

A plea to remember Defender

Seattle Times staff columnist

There are no black newspapers like the Chicago Defender today, not even the Chicago Defender.

You know how significant The New York Times is. Well, the Defender was once more important to black folks, and its influence touched the whole nation. Its publisher was a confidante of presidents, and leading thinkers shared their opinions in its pages. Its story is bound up with the history of 20th-century America. That includes its decline as the freedoms it helped champion gave readers and writers other choices.

I saw some of that history in "Paper Trail: 100 Years of the Chicago Defender," a documentary that was screened at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival this week.

The festival, in its third year, has matured into an intellectually stimulating trip through the diversity of black folks, with films from Seattle to the Netherlands, Italy to Brazil; "Seoul to Soul," "Bullets in the Hood," "Daughters of the Wind." It's stuff you are unlikely to see elsewhere, which is what the Defender offered its readers.

The paper was founded in May 1905 by Robert Abbott, who earned a law degree but found his color an impediment to practice. It turns out that Abbott had a keen news sense, a feel for business and a dedication to the good of the community that paid off in loyalty and high readership.

His paper circulated across the country, even in the South, where it was banned in many cities. Abbott would get the papers to Pullman porters and these black workers would hide bundles of them on their trains. They arranged to toss them from the trains at designated spots across the South, where distributors would retrieve them.

It was a brilliant, underground system that depended on community and helped build community.

His paper encouraged the Great Migration, in which black people by the thousands made their way from the South to Northern industrial cities in search of real freedom and economic opportunity.

The weekly paper once reached a paid circulation of 250,000 and was passed from hand to hand, seen by many times that number. Abbott became a millionaire.

The Defender took on issues the white papers ignored. It kept track of lynchings and reported terrible treatment black veterans got upon their return from fighting in World War I. It reported positive stories about black people, such as the adventures of Bessie Coleman, a pioneer pilot. And it chronicled everyday lives of people who were invisible to white papers.

That was what black papers did, since the first one, Freedom's Journal, championed the abolition of slavery. There were about 500 black newspapers by the 1920s, many with storied histories of their own, but none reached the heights of the Defender.

In 1940, John H. Sengstacke, Abbott's nephew, took over the paper and deepened its impact. He believed success in business was the first step toward equality.

The Defender was a forum for thought. Langston Hughes had a column in the paper. W.E.B. DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin wrote for it, and so did S.I. Hayakawa.

Sengstacke encouraged FDR to give wings to the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.

He made the Defender a daily paper in 1956. It was the largest black-owned paper in the world. Then times changed.

The Civil Rights Movement moved black folks forward, but the Defender lagged behind, too conservative in its outlook to be a leader in the new movement. It began losing circulation in the 1960s.

By the '70s, most of its top journalists had moved on to white papers, which were beginning to integrate and could pay more. Readers moved on, too. The Defender and other black newspapers went into decline.

Integration was a blow to many black businesses. And yet, integration is still a work in progress, slow progress sometimes.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, which is meeting in Seattle this week, released its latest survey of newsroom diversity Tuesday. Journalists from groups that are in the minority in the United States are not quite 14 percent of the newspaper workforce, but are 33 percent of the country's population.

That disparity affects the way Americans see their country and the world by limiting the richness of the information they have available to shape their views.

Other media are similarly limited. The film festival itself is an effort to bring some diversity to the movie screen. The festival, put together by Zola Mumford, continues through Sunday. You can find the schedule at www.langstonblackfilmfest.org.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/jerrylarge.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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