REDISCOVERING HISTORY

 

Robert ‘Bobby’ Sengstacke DONATES THE SENGSTACKE FAMILY PAPERS TO THE CHICAGO PUBLIC LiBRARY...

From the New York TImes:

Historical Trove, Freed From Storage, Gets a Home


Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers/Chicago Public Library

President Harry S. Truman, left, John H. Sengstacke and Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago in the 1956 Bud Billiken Parade.


       

By DIRK JOHNSON

Published: May 26, 2009

CHICAGO — On a sweltering day two summers ago, a University of Chicago scholar, Jacqueline Goldsby, began to dig through a maze of cardboard boxes crammed to the ceiling in a loft on Ogden Avenue. As she peeked inside the boxes, bulging with hidden remnants from The Chicago Defender, the famed black newspaper, she gasped.



Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers/Chicago Public Library Robert S. Abbott, left, founder of The Chicago  Defender, in 1934 with Mr. Sengstacke, his nephew,  who took over in 1948.




                Robert Sengstacke, the last in his family to run The Defender, with Jacqueline Goldsby, a scholar who reveled in  reviewing the paper’s files. The files were donated to the Chicago library.


“I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ There were photos of Booker T. Washington playing with his grandchildren, there were letters from Harry Truman,” said Dr. Goldsby, 47. “Every time I opened a box, I found something of historical significance.”

The artifacts were the last vestiges of The Defender still in the hands of Robert Sengstacke, heir to the newspaper’s founding family. Mr. Sengstacke estimated that the collection could fetch “a few million bucks,” although it has not been formally appraised.

But after some spirited discussions with Dr. Goldsby, Mr. Sengstacke said, he decided some things were worth more than money. City officials are to announce Wednesday that the collection will be donated to the Chicago Public Library and housed in a South Side branch.

Dr. Goldsby, who has devoted her academic life to unearthing the history of black culture, said she wrapped Mr. Sengstacke in a tearful embrace when he decided to share the collection. “He knows this doesn’t just belong to his family,” she said

For his part, Mr. Sengstacke, 66, said simply, “There’s a history that must be told.”

The collection has some 4,000 photographs, including unpublished shots of the boxer Jack Johnson and the bandleader Duke Ellington, as well as letters from every United States president from Truman to Bill Clinton. One historic front page features the Chicago homecoming of the World War II hero Dorie Miller, a black cook at Pearl Harbor who picked up a machine gun after the Japanese attack and brought down enemy fighter planes.

The Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott, who quit a fledging law practice after being told he was “too black to win a case.” The newspaper became a leading national voice for African-Americans, a showcase for black intellectuals and an unapologetic advocate for civil rights. It was smuggled by Pullman porters into reaches of the South where it was legally forbidden, and read aloud in black churches. Mr. Abbott, who rode in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, was known to flaunt his wealth, serving as a vivid example that a black man could be an aristocrat with all the swagger of the white titans.

At its peak in the 1920s, the paper had a daily circulation of about 250,000; now a weekly, its circulation is about 10,000.

The newspaper transferred to Mr. Abbott’s nephew, John H. Sengstacke (Robert’s father), in 1948. Under his watch, the paper became a strong advocate in party politics, urging blacks to switch to the Democratic Party. He also played a major role in desegregating the armed forces and breaking the color barrier in professional baseball.

After John Sengstacke died in 1997, the newspaper passed out of the family’s hands, though Robert Sengstacke continued to be affiliated with it for some time. John Sengstacke left to his son some 83 boxes of uncertain contents. “I figured there’d be some of his zoot suits from the 70s,” the younger Mr. Sengstacke said, “but I didn’t know the depth of what was going to be in there.” He hauled the boxes to his apartment on Prairie Avenue in 2006, and later to a loft in the industrial section along Ogden.

Mr. Sengstacke crossed paths with Dr. Goldsby and let her examine the boxes. The disorganization and the nearly insufferable heat, she said, made her consider walking away. Instead, she worked three days a week, five hours at a crack, for six weeks.

She found remembrances of Booker T. Washington, sent to The Defender by prominent political, business and academic leaders; letters from blacks during the Great Migration to the North; files on John Sengstacke’s trips to Russia, China and the Middle East; unpublished photos of Oscar DePriest, the nation’s first black congressman since Reconstruction; and files on the Bud Billiken Parade, a huge annual march The Defender started in 1929 to promote healthy activities for children.

All of it will become part of the Vivian Harsh collection of African-American history, named for the city’s first black librarian, at the library’s Woodson branch. The branch is in a modest neighborhood at 95th and Halsted, where ordinary working people, and some who are without work, can see the artifacts.

“We don’t have the fame of the Smithsonian,” said Michael Flug, who manages the Harsh collection. “But he wanted it to be in Chicago.”

Mr. Sengstacke said he thought the project would bring a smile to his father, a hard-nosed newspaperman who made more than a few enemies in his day, including some on his own staff.

“People say you could have a huge club of all the people my dad fired,” Mr. Sengstacke, a noted photographer, said with a laugh.

He, too, was bounced by the taskmaster more than once. But he was hired back.


                                                       


From the Chicago Sun Times:

Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers to be donated to

Chicago Public Library

May 27, 2009


BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter

Robert Sengstacke believes there’s an “untold story” about black political empowerment in Chicago that needs to be told — and will be now that he’s donated his family papers to the Chicago Public Library.

It’s the story of a powerful triumvirate that included Sengstacke’s father, longtime Chicago Defender publisher John Sengstacke; South Side Congressman William Dawson and former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Robert Sengstacke said his father and Dawson quietly “did more for blacks than any two African-Americans” in U.S. history and “built a black voting bloc” that stretched from Chicago to Washington and helped elect Richard J. Daley.

Sengstacke then turned to Richard M. Daley and said, “The third party in this was your dad, who never forgot where he came from. He was a tough old guy. He did some things we didn’t like. But, you can go to Manhattan and ride around all day, and if you see more than five black cops, I’ll challenge you.”

He added, “Let’s take the sanitation trucks. Those are white men’s jobs in most cities today. Why is this [different in Chicago]? That was because of what Mayor Richard Daley, John Sengstacke and Congressman Dawson achieved.”

Richard M. Daley heartily agreed during a ceremony today at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted, which will house the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers.

“That was a very strong relationship — his closeness to John Sengstacke and, of course, Congressman Bill Dawson. That was the trifecta of politics and business coming together on behalf of the African-American community,” Daley said.

“You don’t realize what they did. … They did unbelievable things behind closed doors, as Robert pointed out. People don’t understand how they got it done — and they got it done in that time in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s.”

Former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the pivotal role that Dawson played in helping to elect Richard J. Daley is documented and well-known. But, Simpson said Sengstacke’s role in influencing Richard J. Daley is not.

“If those claims are substantiated by the papers, that would fill out a fuller picture of the relationship between the Richard J. Daley machine and the African-American community,” Simpson said.

But, the former alderman said he does not buy Robert Sengstacke’s claim that African-Americans widely benefited from the Dawson-Daley-Sengstacke triumvirate. During the Daley years, Simpson noted that blacks filed lawsuits to get their fair share of jobs in the Chicago Police and Fire Departments and the Chicago Public Schools remained segregated.

“If he’s saying that they empowered and got blacks more jobs and contracts, that’s probably true. But, that’s not integration. It’s sharing the spoils with someone who helped you,” Simpson said.

The Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers are billed as one of the nation’s most significant resources of African-American history and culture.

Robert Sengstacke said he “single-handedly rescued” the documents from the Defender and donated them to Chicago, instead of selling them for profit, because of, what he called “the spirit of home.”

“Yes, there was money available. But, the documents were worth more than money,” he said.