The Sengstacke/Abbot legacy is about family, resiliency, using your power for good. John H.H. Sengstacke’s (1848-1904) story is really a collective one because his life centered around his family and community. His parents were a married interracial couple during the era of slavery, something extremely uncommon in the deep South. And his wife, Flora Abbott Sengstacke, was a determined and intelligent woman who taught herself to read when young and who fought for her eldest son, Robert, who would go on to become the editor of the formidable Chicago Defender and the leader of the Great Migration. John was a congregational minister, local newspaper publisher, educator, and obvious family mentor. He and Flora passed a legacy of knowledge that we still recognize today through their generations.
The Sengstacke/Abbott family is so famous that there is a multitude written about them. My hope with this article is that you can get an idea who they were by pooling as many sources as I can find together so that you don’t have to hunt these down for yourself.
Below is biographical note from the Chicago Public Library on the lives of the Sengstacke/Abbott family (click here to view this record in its entirety):
Robert Sengstacke Abbott (November 28 or 29, 1868-February 29, 1940) was born in Frederica, St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, the second child of Thomas Abbott (?-1869) and Flora Butler Abbott (1847-1932). Thomas Abbott and his family had been owned as slaves by Captain Charles Stevens, who had a plantation on St. Simon’s Island. After Emancipation, Thomas moved to Savannah, Georgia, and met Flora Butler, the daughter of Harriet and Jacob Butler. Thomas and Flora married in 1867. Flora had been born a slave in Savannah; her parents had both been born in West Africa. Whereas Thomas had been taught to read and write by his master, Flora had taught herself to read and write in secret, and attended a clandestine school for slaves. Thomas and Flora returned to St. Simon’s Island and opened a small grocery store. When Thomas died of tuberculosis in 1869, less than a year after Robert’s birth, Flora took her infant son back to Savannah. She was aided in the ensuing custody battle by John Henry Hermann Sengstacke (1848-1904), and the two married July 26, 1874.
Robert’s stepfather, John H. H. Sengstacke, had an unusual family history. His father, Herman Henry Sengstacke, a German sea captain had immigrated to the United States and was working as a merchant when he attended a slave auction in 1847. Angered by the poor treatment of black women being auctioned as property, he bought and freed a woman named Tama Melrose. The two traveled to South Carolina, where interracial marriage was legal, married, and returned to Savannah. John Herman Henry was born the following year, and Tama died giving birth to a daughter in 1849. Herman Sengstacke took both children back to Germany. In 1869, John Sengstacke returned to the United States to investigate what had become of his father’s estate in Savannah. He eventually received the store that his father had run in a black settlement in Savannah. Sengstacke settled there, and he allowed his new friend Flora Abbott and her infant son to move into a house on the property before they married in 1874. An educated, very light-skinned man who was often mistaken for a white man, Sengstacke was stung by his treatment in racist Georgia, and taught his stepson Robert to hate racial injustice.
John H. H. Sengstacke treated Robert as his own son, though he was baptized as Robert Abbott. John and Flora had seven children: John Jr., Alexander (1875-1934, the father of Chicago Defender publisher John Sengstacke), Mary, Rebecca, Eliza, Susan, and John. In 1876, when Robert was eight years old, John H. H. Sengstacke was ordained as a Congregational minister. The family moved to Woodville, a historically black suburb of Savannah, and pastored Woodville Pilgrim Congregational Church. Angered at the poor educational opportunities available to black residents of Woodville, John began teaching school in addition to his ministry.
Robert Abbott’s interest in printing began when he worked as a printer’s devil at a local newspaper. In 1889, he enrolled in Hampton Institute’s printing trade program, having apprenticed at the Savannah Echo while waiting to matriculate. Abbott finished his printer’s course in 1893 but remained at Hampton, taking his bachelor’s degree in 1896. While at Hampton, Abbott, a concert tenor, sang in the Hampton Quartet. His registration receipts indicate that he was already using the name Robert Sengstacke Abbott during his Hampton years.
After graduating with his second Hampton degree, Abbott became frustrated with race discrimination in the printer’s trade, and in 1898 he decided to study law at Kent College in Chicago (now Chicago-Kent College of Law), earning his L.L.B. in 1899, the only African American in a class of 70 students. Abbott practiced law briefly in Gary, Indiana and Topeka, Kansas before returning to Chicago in 1903.
Again he found his skin color to be a barrier to his career. Abbott decided to enter the newspaper business, and on May 6, 1905, Abbott began selling a four-page sheet called the Chicago Defender door-to-door in Chicago’s growing African American community. Though Abbott initially rented an office to write and print the paper, financial instability forced him to retreat to his own home, a room he rented from Henrietta Lee at 3159 State Street. Inspired by his cause, Lee offered him the use of the dining room and kitchen. Abbott eventually repaid Lee’s generosity by buying her an eight-room house.
Abbott had been inspired by his stepfather’s teachings, as well as the indignities of Jim Crow across the South, to use his paper as a platform to speak against racial injustice. As his friend and colleague Metz T. P. Lochard would later write, the scourge of lynchings and the 1906 riot in Atlanta “prodded Abbott with their horror.” Abbott highlighted incidents of discrimination and terror, supporting equal opportunities for African Americans in all sectors of American life.
With the Defender’s national readership, Abbott decided to use his newspaper to influence black Southerners to migrate north. Throughout, 1917, the Defender published news articles and editorials that promoted the growing “Exodus,” sponsoring its own “Great Northern Drive.” Racial tension grew during World War I, and erupted in the Chicago Riot of, 1919, eight days of violence following the drowning of a black teenager who had been swimming in an all-white section of beach on Lake Michigan. Though the Defender initially advocated demonstrations to protest the teen’s death, Abbott would eventually print handbills declaring “This is not time to solve the Race Question.” Abbott was nominated to serve on the Chicago Commission on Race Relations which investigated the causes of the violence. Their report, The Negro in Chicago, was published in 1922.
Abbott fought all segregation, and opposed black nationalism. He was an implacable foe of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement and Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. In 1923, Abbott joined William Pickens, Chandler Owen, Robert W. Bagnall, and others in pushing the U.S. Attorney General to “vigorously and speedily push the government’s case against Marcus Garvey for using the mails to defraud.” A Republican in the years when nearly all African Americans supported that party, Abbott also declared his anti-Communist beliefs, while using the threat of Communism’s attraction for African Americans as a bargaining chip with powerful whites.
The Defender’s success had made Abbott a millionaire, and on May 28, 1918, he purchased a mansion at 4847 Champlain Avenue. Three months later, nearing 50 years old, he married Helen Thornton Morrison, a widow. The couple traveled to South America in 1923; on his return, Abbott singled out Brazil’s relative racial equality for praise in articles in the Defender. Abbott reported a similar lack of restrictions when he and Helen toured Europe in 1929. Abbott’s marriage to Helen ended in a bitter divorce in 1933. In August, 1934, Abbott married Edna Brown Denison, a 43-year-old widow with four grown children.
On November 10th, 1919, Abbott bought a three-story building at 3435-3437 Indiana Avenue and transformed the building into the Defender headquarters. In 1931 he launched Abbott’s Monthly, a magazine. Though successful at first, the Depression hurt sales and the magazine folded in 1933. Abbott meanwhile began to offer financial support to his enormous extended family, including his German cousins. He took a special interest in the son of his brother Alexander, John Herman Henry Sengstacke, III, whose Hampton education he bankrolled. In 1934, Abbott hired him as vice president and treasurer of the Defender, promoting him to general manager the following year.
Abbott served as a board member of the Wabash Avenue YMCA; board member of the Chicago Urban League; a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and national executive president of the Hampton Alumni Association; member of the American Ancient Order of Foresters, the Appomattox Club, and Lincoln Memorial Association; and a 33rd degree Mason. Though raised in the Congregational denomination, in adulthood Abbott joined the Episcopal Church and then the Presbyterian Church. Frustrated with racial discrimination in both, he embraced the Baha’i faith in the last years of his life.
In 1939, an ailing Abbott ceded control of the Defender to his nephew John Sengstacke. He died of Bright’s Disease, an affliction of the kidneys, on February 29, 1940. His body lay in state at his South Parkway mansion, and his funeral services were conducted by Rev. Archibald Carey, Jr. and Rev. Joseph Evans, at Metropolitan Community Church. He is buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago.
The Abbott Institute has an in-depth biography on the legacy of John H.H. Sengstacke’s stepson, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, that you can find here.
African American Registry has a great article on the life of John H.H. Sengstacke’s grandson and namesake here.
Bronzeville Life has an article written by a current member of the Sengstacke family about family memories and a trip to visit John and Flora’s plot that you can read here.