As It Happens

The Chicago Defender, an iconic black paper, hits newsstands for last time

The Chicago Defender, the century-old newspaper that tells the stories of black Americans, hit newsstands Wednesday for the last time. It will now be digital-only.

The newspaper will continue on its digital platform

Copies of the Chicago Defender are shown on Tuesday in Chicago, Ill. The newspaper, founded in 1905 to serve the city's black community, is schedule to print its final edition Wednesday. (Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Listen7:53

Transcript

The Chicago Defender, the century-old newspaper that tells the stories of black Americans, hit newsstands Wednesday for the last time as it goes digital-only.

Since 1905, the Chicago-based weekly has covered everything from births and weddings in the city, to lynchings and the assassination of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In announcing the move, Real Times Media CEO Hiram E. Jackson said the newspaper has made significant investment in digital media because of changes in the publishing landscape.

Angela Ford has been reading the paper her whole life. She's the founder of the Obsidian Collection Archive, an organization that is digitizing black media — including the Chicago Defender.

Ford spoke with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan about the importance of the paper.  Here is part of their conversation.

What did the Chicago Defender mean to you growing up? 

It was the essential means of us getting daily news in the black community. It was essential to knowing what was going on, who got married, what items were on sale at the grocery store.

It's how we communicated for most of my young adult life.

And you had some family connections as well. I think your grandmother appeared in one of the editions. Tell us about that.

My grandmother was in the Chicago Defender a lot. She had a charm school in the 1950s and '60s and that was to teach young ladies how to be ladylike and attract meaningful husbands. 

So she had a lot of beautiful women in her classes and they were featured in the Chicago Defender a lot, as was she. 

An article in the Chicago Defender about Angela Ford's grandmother, Edna McClain. (Submitted by Angela Ford)

Were you ever in the paper? 

I was. When I was 18 I was in a cotillion and as a debutante I was presented to society and the Chicago Defender ran pictures every year of every group of black women that were presented to society.

I still have my copy. It is laminated. I look young and amazing. 

I was 18 years old and it was just an integral part of being black in Chicago.

Angela Ford — top row, second from the left — appears in the Chicago Defender as a debutante. (Submitted by Angela Ford)

And what was that like for you to go through those archives? Because, of course, in its long history it covered some very big stories, some very important stories.

It was amazing. When we first went to the Chicago Defender archives there was a theory that there were about 10,000 images in the room.

And what we found, instead of 10,000 images, was 250,000 images. And for me that was life-changing. To see 250,000 images of yourself in a zeitgeist that doesn't really show a lot of African-American images, it was like being bit by a radioactive spider. 

It sounds like it was more than society pages though, in a way. I mean, they covered, for instance, lynchings of many black Americans, they covered trials where white police officers would be responsible for black deaths. How did that impact you? 

It was important to hear it from a black perspective because the mainstream narrative wasn't from our perspective. Let me say that. 

And I think that growing up from my youth I always knew the story from a black perspective. And even the police brutality, even all of the atrocities that could happen in America, it was important that you read it in the Defender because it wasn't just downtrodden victimhood. 

American civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson holds a copy of the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper, as it was then known, which features the headline 'King Murdered!' on April 5, 1968. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

It had a huge impact on the migration of hundreds of thousands of black Americans from the South to the North. Tell us how.

The history states about six million people moved from the Jim Crow South … but the Chicago Defender was very instrumental in having a national edition of the paper that went through the train system, through the Pullman porters. 

Those were the black men that worked on these train cars of the ... first class people that rode the trains. So a Pullman porter could actually make additional monies by selling the Defender in bulk to small towns along the way.

In the Defender, black people could read what cities were welcoming black people, where jobs were, what kind of opportunities for housing, how you could bring your family. They laid out the safest routes of travel. 

It was … like a PO box. If you wanted to write your family up north, people would send their letters to the Chicago Defender and then people from Chicago would stop by the Defender to get that correspondence until they got stable housing. 

What are you going to miss most about holding the paper copy? 

I grew up holding a newspaper. It's how I used to take in information. The text on these smartphones is small and I'm not young. So that is a change of pace.

But more than that, I'm going to miss seeing the logo of the Defender in different stations, at different newsstands. It was such an assurance that our voice was heard and our voice was recognized and acknowledged in the mainstream of the country.

The Chicago Defender was so essential that you couldn't have told me in 1982, you know, there'll be a time when there'll be no Chicago Defender. That would make no sense.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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