From The Chicago Defender to Ebony, many prominent Black media outlets have called Chicago home. The buildings the Black press occupied in the city helped establish their identities as outlets for racial uplift, serving as meeting places, political sites, and gallery spaces for Black Chicagoans. E. James West explores this history of Chicago’s Black media buildings in his new book, “A House for the Struggle: The Black Press and the Built Environment in Chicago,” set for release by the University of Illinois Press in April 2022. In the following excerpt from the book’s conclusion, West describes the multiple functions buildings had for publications like The Defender, The Chicago Bee, and Johnson Publishing, which printed the magazines Ebony and Jet:
Through such accolades and retrospective accounts, the Defender and Johnson Publishing added further strands to the dense and overlapping spatial histories that had been constructed by Chicago’s Black press over preceding generations — histories that had indelibly linked their physical locations with their role as a “voice for the race” and their editorial content to the visibility and functionality of their buildings. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the humble offices inhabited by many of Chicago’s Black media concerns reflected their precarious economic and social status. For Robert Abbott and others who eschewed traditional links to Black religious and fraternal organizations in an attempt to build a modern, commercially oriented Black press, it seemed as though “the wolf [was] at each door.” However, as the onset of the Great Migration swelled Chicago’s African American population, the city’s Black press and its buildings grew in tandem. For Southern sojourners heeding the clarion call of publications like the Chicago Defender, the Black press was a vital tool in helping them adjust to life in the urban North. In turn, many migrants saw Black publishing offices as symbols of economic and social opportunity and as prominent landmarks in the landscape of the Chicago’s emerging Black metropolis. These sentiments were welcomed by Abbott, who understood the critical role that the built environment could play in the relentless quest for greater advertising and circulation. Not without reason did the publisher contend that “every additional reader to the Chicago Defender is another brick in our wall of protection, another beacon light in our tower of success.”
Buoyed by its emergence as the “dean” of Chicago’s Black newspaper group, the Defender’s move to Indiana Avenue during the early 1920s helped to bolster its self-appointed role as the “world’s greatest weekly.” The Defender’s offices were just one part of a vibrant Black newspaper row that flourished during this period as Chicago’s Black press thrived as part of a golden age of Black business development on the South Side. Just as Black media concerns battled to map and remap the contours of the African American city, so too did they seek to embellish (or diminish) the centrality of their own and other Black press buildings within Black Chicago’s literal and literary landscapes. For the upstart Chicago Whip, critiques of the Defender’s content and relationship with Black Chicago were manifested through attacks on the newspaper’s offices and its proximity to “vice spots … beneath its very nose.” For publications like the upmarket and aspirational Chicago Bee, architecture became a way of conflating the character of its content with the character of its building. Thus the Bee’s elegant Art Deco headquarters on State Street became a physical extension of “what the Bee stands for.” More broadly, Chicago’s Black periodicals created new conceptual and rhetorical frameworks to advance the South Side as a “spatial articulation of … the Black metropolis vision.” In different ways and with varying degrees of success, these ideas were encapsulated through the notion of “Defenderland,” Abbott’s name for “a South Side bound together in its identity by the newspaper,” and the promise of “Bronzeville,” a racialized literary and cultural geography characterized and popularized by the periodicals that inhabited it.
As the form and function of Chicago’s Black press began to change during and after World War II, Black periodicals used their buildings to represent and respond to these changes in different ways. For the Defender the built environment became a means of rebutting popular narratives of Black press decline. Rejecting coverage that linked the shrinking circulation and influence of Black newspapers with their failure to “modernize plants and beef up skimpy staffs,” Abbott’s successor, John Sengstacke, pushed for the development of “a substantial Chicago Defender Office and Community Building” to counteract economic and legal pressures. While Sengstacke’s ambitions to construct a new corporate headquarters from the ground up would be unfulfilled, the newspaper’s acquisition of 2400 Michigan Avenue provided a powerful message to readers and detractors alike: that the Defender remained “an important national institution with a rich tradition and considerable influence.”
Concomitantly, the increasingly capacious offices inhabited by Johnson Publishing Company during the 1940s and early 1950s, culminating in publisher John H. Johnson’s widely celebrated renovation of the Hursen Funeral Home at 1820 Michigan Avenue, served as notable landmarks in its rapid emergence as the nation’s leading Black press institution. As cataloged through documentary series such as One Tenth of a Nation, the company’s “luxurious editorial offices [were] eloquent testimony” to both its own success and the broader ascendancy of Black newsmagazines in postwar America.
Yet even as the move to larger and more impressive buildings solidified the enduring or emerging power of the Defender and Johnson Publishing, their relocation to Michigan Avenue placed increased distance between Chicago’s leading Black press enterprises and the heart of the South Side community that had nurtured their development. For Johnson this was further complicated by his apparent conflation of first-class accommodations with the city’s predominantly white downtown business district. In response, the publisher chose to emphasize the structural barriers impeding his acquisition of 1820 Michigan Avenue, an argument that positioned its eventual purchase not as a retreat from but a victory for “the race.” In the case of the Defender, the newspaper’s relocation was rationalized as part of an expansion program that would allow the publication to better navigate its dual responsibilities to Chicago’s Black communities and the national African American populace. For both enterprises, their new offices were a vital weapon in “the battle for civic authority and public relations under the guise of public interest.” As exhibition spaces, historical galleries, civic hubs, and popular tourist attractions, these sites became a veritable “cross-roads of the world,” helping to realize the earlier desire of Robert Abbott for Black media buildings to become “the meeting place for all the people.”
At the same time, the continued visibility of Chicago’s Black media buildings positioned them as important symbols for — and, at times, prominent battlegrounds in — the ongoing struggle for civil rights and racial justice. The Defender’s cohabitation with the Chicago Urban League during the late 1950s and early 1960s provides us with perhaps the most explicit example of how the civil rights movement “came home” for Chicago’s Black press during the decades following World War II. As publications like the Defender and companies like Johnson Publishing grappled with their relationship to and depiction of the Black freedom struggle, their offices became highly politicized and deeply contested sites, ones that could provide “evidence” of their commitment to the cause or serve as canvases upon which to project criticisms of the publications they housed. Such contestations reflect the multivalent functionality and performativity of Black media buildings, something that would become even more pronounced when Johnson Publishing’s new corporate headquarters was unveiled during the early 1970s. Celebrated in some quarters as a riotous monument to Black cultural and economic power, the building was derided by others as a self-serving shrine to the political impotency and failed promises of Black capitalism.