Chicago Defender: Serving News to the Black Community for 110 Years

The Chicago Defender was founded in 1905, and at one point was the nation's most influential black weekly newspaper. Now, the almost 110-year-old publication has plans to evolve its digital platform. The new executive editor, Kai El' Zabar, and new publisher, Cheryl Mainor, join Chicago Tonight to discuss their plans to advance the publication, why minority-focused publications are still important today, and how they plan to take back the Chicago Defender's spot as the voice of the black community in Chicago.

In 2005, WTTW produced a documentary called Paper Trail: 100 Years of the Chicago Defender, telling the story of American history through the eyes of the long-standing black newspaper. It features politicians such as then-Sen. Barack Obama, and is hosted by Harry Lennix. As the Chicago Defender is gearing up to celebrate its 110th anniversary, we spoke with Barbara Allen, producer of the documentary, about why she felt it was important to make the film and the importance of minority publications.

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Linotype operators of the Chicago Defender, 1941What is the documentary about?

It’s a multi-layered look at the rise and fall of the Chicago Defender, focusing on the critical role the paper played in reshaping a city, and ultimately the nation. Within its first 50 years, you learn that the Chicago Defender would become the largest African-American newspaper in the country, boasting paid circulation of 250,000, and featuring articles written by many of the best writers in America—black and white. The paper’s widespread influence would be felt through—among other things—its successful campaign to spark the Great Migration of blacks from the south to the north.

It also reveals other little-known facts about the Defender, such as the influence of its publishers on public officials (including a generation of American presidents), and the superior investigative work of the paper’s reporters in the Emmett Till lynching case. The narrative in the documentary ties the story together with the thread of an African-American family’s unwavering commitment to social change—fueled by the sense that the African-American press in this country had to serve as an advocate for the dispossessed, a defender of basic rights.

How did you go about creating the documentary?

Paper Trail is the result of extensive research and review of background material, including books, commentary, and archival documents, many of which had never before been revealed. Hundreds of newspaper articles, editorials and opinion columns were reviewed in order to develop probing questions for the more than 40 on-camera interviews that were conducted.

What did you enjoy most about working on the film?

Conducting the research. That’s always the most fun. I would just melt away when digging into the history. And I gained so much more respect for my community; a better understanding that we weren’t just sitting back as victims but we were actually organizing and taking a stand, even during a time where we were being lynched daily and couldn’t vote. In the past, African Americans have been presented as little sheep, and we weren’t. Conducting the research humbled me that I’m truly standing on the shoulder of giants.

The other thing I enjoyed was working with Harry Lennix. Not only is he the ultimate professional, but he cares about the community and the people. He was a schoolteacher and has always carried with him to learn the truth. He’s one of my heroes.

Harry Lennix and Barbara AllenWhat did you hope viewers would take away from the documentary?

I was hoping they would understand the importance of telling your own story, and understand other perspectives in American history. Telling the history through the eyes of a black paper was probably shocking, but it made a lot of people rethink what they thought were facts. I also wanted viewers to take away how important it is to have black media, because they portray the image and voice in the African-American community in a different way than mainstream media, because they know us.

Do you believe that minority-focused publications are still needed today?

Yes, now more than ever. People who don’t come to our communities don’t know us personally; they don’t understand us, so we shouldn’t allow them to define us. We need to tell our own stories and share our unique perspectives, and define who we are. That’s why I began the documentary with Theresa Fambro Hooks saying, “if we don’t tell our own story, it’s going to be told wrong.”

I think it’s important for us to talk to each other about the things in our community, and the problems that we have. The mainstream media has more things to cover, so we are often overlooked. They just don’t have the interest or room to cover our issues and it’s not necessarily their job, it’s ours.

Black publications were very influential in the black community -- they were a big focal point. How do you think publications can move back to being that voice?

We’re going to have to take lessons from Robert S. Abbott, the Chicago Defender founder. They brought in every prominent writer you could think of to write for the publication, especially the Victory Edition. Big names like Langston Hughes and W.E.B Du Bois, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Marshall Fields. We need to bring in some of today’s biggest and brightest voices from our community, and plenty of young people.

There were certain discussions that were being had that need to be continued. And black publications are the ones who will continue those discussions, and not just when something happens.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Paper Trail: 100 Years of the Chicago Defender was the winner of three Emmys in 2006 for Best Documentary, Best Host (Harry Lennix) and Best Writing. In 2005, it received the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism in the in-depth reporting (documentary) category.

Watch the full film below.


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