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The Chicago Defender called 2400 S. Michigan its home from the late 1950s to 2005. Prior to that, for a more than twenty years, the building served as the headquarters of the Illinois Automobile Club, located in the historic Motor Row district of Chicago. In addition to this building, Fifty-five sites within the Motor Row District of Chicago's South Michigan Ave. are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once housing 116 auto showrooms, the area later became a recording mecca -- tied to Chicago blues, and also the home of the Chicago Defender.

Photo of the building, once home to the Chicago Defender and Illinois Auto Club. Photo Credit: Google Maps.

Photo of the building, once home to the Chicago Defender and Illinois Auto Club. Photo Credit: Google Maps.

For nearly five decades, the Chicago Defender served as one of the strongest voices for African Americans, much of that time when Jim Crow laws, racially restricted covenant real-estate practices, and military segregation were prevalent in the U.S. It's 1950s -2005 Michigan Ave. home sits on the northern side of the Bronzeville neighborhood and the southern end of the historic Motor Row district, much of which is listed on the National Register for Historic Places.

Located on the South Side, this building was designed in 1936 by Prairie School architect Philip Maher as the headquarters for the Illinois Automobile Club. Maher designed the building using a Spanish Mission style motif. However, in the middle of the 20th century, the building was resigned, allowing for use of Art Deco details, which can still be seen today.1

The building, designed to host an exclusive club for  automobile owners, was one of the last buildings constructed in Motor Row as part of the automobile industry. Its Olympic-size swimming pool was later filled in to make room for the Chicago Defender's printing presses once the newspaper acquired the building in the 1950s. The lobby and ornamentation remains intact. 2

About the Chicago Defender

The Chicago Defender grew to fame prior to moving to the Motor Row district by its attempts to communicate with President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) during World War II.  FDR held an average of 84 presidential news conferences a year — far more than most presidents -- but refused to meet with African American papers until his final years. In doing so, he avoided answering questions about an issue that greatly angered African Americans -- military segregation during WWII, including separating plasma in the blood bank. Hence, the government sanctioned racism on some level.3

However, as noted in the New York Times in January of 2016: 

 As the former Chicago Defender editor and reporter Ethan Michaeli shows in his extraordinary history, “The Defender,” the Negro press barons attacked military segregation with a zeal that set Roosevelt’s teeth on edge. The Negro press warned Black men against Navy recruiters who would promise them training as radiomen, technicians or mechanics — then put them to work serving food to white men. It made its readers understand that Black men and women in uniform were treated worse in Southern towns than German prisoners of war and sometimes went hungry on troop trains because segregationists declined to feed them. It focused unflinchingly on the fistfights and gun battles that erupted between Blacks and whites on military bases. And it reiterated the truth that no doubt cut Roosevelt the most deeply: His government’s insistence on racial separation was of a piece with the “master race” theory put in play by Hitler in Europe.4

Robert S. Abbott, who came north as part of the Great Migration -- the movement of Blacks from the South to the North during the 20th century, helped create The Defender. Abbott's set out on a mission to destroy racial prejudice. The paper fought against racial, economic, and social discrimination, and wrote gut-wrenching stories about lynchings, rape, and mob violence. In addition to its hard-hitting stories, the Chicago Defender also contributed greatly to serving its African Americans as a cultural voice. The high level of journalism allowed for writing that included columnns and editorials, society news, culture, and local politics. 5

By 1940, with WWII near,  Abbott died and his nephew John H. Sengstacke succeeded him. AfricanAmericans by that point had become much more politically savvy and understood how to work the ballot boxes. Sengstacke successfully arranged to have several Black papers unite as one voice as a means of avoiding governmental pressure to shutdown. That idea manifested itself in the form of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association. Together, they wrote pieces on the parallels of fighting Nazism abroad and racism at home, known as the "Double V" campaign (double victory).6

When Sengstacke traveled to Washington  to meet with Attorney General Francis, he was threatened with being shutdown. However, Sengstacke noted that the papers had done nothing illegal because they had urged African Americans to support the war. Moreover, he dared the Attorney General to shutdown the papers. The tone and strength forced a reverse of positions. Fearing riots, the Black papers suddenly found opportunities to interview federal officials, including meeting with FDR -- finally -- in 1944, the year before FDR died. In 1949, President Truman ended military segregation, and helped change national views on government-based racism -- although it certainly took some time.7  

The paper continued to thrive throughout the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s and into the 1970s, but as the 20th century waned, so did the power of the Chicago Defender and African-American papers, in general. 

1 "Chicago Defender Building," Landmarks Illinois. Last accessed August 27, 2016. 2 Ibid. 3 Brent Staples, "'The Defender,’ by Ethan Michaeli," New York Times (2016). 4. Ibid. 5. Wallace Best, "Chicago Defender," Encyclopedia of Chicago,, Last modified, 2005, 6 Staples, "The Defender." 7 ibid. Additional Sources: Ethan Michaeli, How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America From the Age of the Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2016). Adam Paul Green, “Selling the Race: Cultural Production and Notions of Community in Black Chicago, 1940–1955.” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1998. James R. Grossman, James R, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, 1989. Roi Ottley, The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott. 1955.