Buried in a blockhouse of paperwork and newspapers, Lou Ransom, executive editor of the Chicago Defender, remarks, “When you tear down projects, and you issue vouchers, people will move and try to find the most hospitable places to live.” He swivels his chair around, turning his back against the view of Lake Michigan from the seventeenth-floor office of the Chicago Defender, continuing to explain, “I call it the Second Migration, where the black population leaves the city for the suburbs, and stops making that commute back…and it’s not just the Sunday morning migration anymore, when people go to the city for church service or hair appointments. What happens when a large percent of your population moves out entirely?” Ransom queries. “What we’re undertaking is a reverse in-migration–the Defender’s moving back into the neighborhood,” he clarifies. That neighborhood is Bronzeville, the former home of the historic black newspaper.
This Second Migration, as Ransom describes it, follows the Chicago Defender’s historical interest in black settlement in the North. This interest began in 1916, when the newspaper’s founder, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, catalyzed the Great Northern Drive, relocating 110,000 black Southerners to Chicago by 1918 and tripling the city’s black population. According to the newspaper, Abbott set the Great Northern Drive into motion by capitalizing on the Chicago Defender’s two-thirds black readership outside of the city, “publish[ing] blazing editorials, articles, and cartoons lauding the benefits of the North, post[ing] job listings and train schedules to facilitate relocation.” Abbott’s investment in promoting the Great Northern Drive was virtuous, liberating people from “the sweat and toil of the boll weevil-stricken South and the paternalistic white overlords to the ‘freer air’ of the North,” as Dr. Metz T. P. Lochard, former Chief Editorial Writer for the Chicago Defender, wrote in “From Robert S. Abbott to John H. Sengstacke” on May 7, 1960, the 44th anniversary of Abbott’s first declaration of the Great Northern Drive. Lochard, in his commemorative article, illustrated the Chicago Defender’s particular “protest action” as “the Negro’s push for self-realization,” setting a political precedent followed by the newspaper’s efforts even today.
The Defender Platform included in every issue of the paper outlines a partisan agenda that calls for securing reparations, inclusion in unions, affordable housing, fair wages, and eliminating racism and police brutality. This platform–introduced in 1905, revised in 1966, and further approved in 2001–shows the continued relevance of Abbott’s original mission for the newspaper.
Today, in fact, the Chicago Defender is renewing its political conviction by relocating its offices back to Bronzeville at 44th Street and King Drive–away from its present location in the Loop, and closer to its readers on the South Side. Ransom, who describes the recent decision to move back to the newspaper’s historic community as an announcement that “we’re back in the community,” claims the move was necessary and apparent to both him and Michael House, president of the Chicago Defender, when they arrived at the publication just two years and one year ago, respectively. Ransom views the process of relocation as almost serendipitous, citing a lucky offer to break the newspaper’s office lease two years before it was up for renegotiation; the opportunity, he says, “aligned like the stars.” House expressed his enthusiasm for the move, saying, “I’m ecstatic that we’re moving. We as a company are very happy. And the people are very happy, as well. It’s a win-win all around.”
The Chicago Defender’s new location is as symbolic as the move itself. Housed in the remodeled 8,500-square-foot Metropolitan Funeral Home, the newspaper will inherit and, in some respects, resurrect a proud South Side ethos the Chicago Defender once had, even at the inception of the publication when Abbott cooked up its first issue in his landlord’s kitchen. Ransom joked, “As long as they take those bodies with them from the basement, we can go on with our business.” But the Bronzeville location does more than present a tangible reality to its readers; it also breaks down the institutionalized casualty of historic prominence. The Chicago Defender’s new offices promise a restoration of accessibility and accountability, Ransom notes, “from the standpoint of news coverage and credibility.” He hopes the newspaper will encourage readers to “walk off the street and tell us a story.” And as House reiterated in an article written by a Defender staff writer announcing the move last month, “They can just come on in and continue building a relationship with us.”
Considered a black Chicago institution, the Chicago Defender seems to have become detached from its original audience, causing its readers to forget that the newspaper is still publishing at all. In fact, Ransom shared that recently a prominent political figure (whose name he declined to share) could not reach the Chicago Defender’s offices directly by phone, and instead needed the assistance of 411 to call. But the hope of the newspaper is that these institutional holes will be repaired: “We are going back to where we belong. It’s the beginning of a new era of the Chicago Defender that reinforces our strong commitment to the African-American community and the communities of greater Chicago,” assures House in an article written April 29.
While the institutional value of moving back to Bronzeville is widely understood and supported, some express the inconvenience of packing up and starting again. Earl Calloway, a writer for the Chicago Defender since 1960, explained that, practically speaking, he was not too excited to move at all. “But it’s alright,” he continued. “It’s gonna be a wonderful move because people are very disgruntled about coming up here. Do what needs to be done.” And as Theresa “Teesee” Fambro-Hooks, another writer for the Chicago Defender since 1961, added, “It’s good for the paper. We’re moving back to the ‘hood.”
In an article from 1915 proclaiming the beginning of Abbott’s Great Northern Drive, the Chicago Defender wrote, “It is the general belief here that it’s God’s plan and hand that through His Providence the Race will be helped,” vindicating the black relocation as a righteous decision. Ransom, discussing his own observations about how news publication is changing, acknowledges the provident measures the Chicago Defender hopes to implement soon. He shares thoughts of expansion in the new Bronzeville location, investment in the newspaper’s website, and involvement with reporting news from adjoining black suburbs outside of the city. Ransom continues, “The Defender hasn’t reached its full potential. It needs to be that much more involved in the lives of the people we write for.” And in many ways, the ethos illustrated nearly a century ago remains in the Chicago Defender’s pursuit of ensuring a “divine” directive. After all, as Ransom shuffles around his desk, motioning to pack some things for the move, he pauses briefly to mention, “It’s not news until it’s in the Defender.”