An award-winning photojournalist, Robert A. Sengstacke, best known as ”Bobby,” was considered one of the most prolific American photographers in the 20th into the 21st century.
Mr. Sengstacke passed away March 7, at 73, after a long illness.
He was the foundation of strength whose roots were grounded in a family legacy that laid seeds — nurturing lives and informing millions of Black people through the Chicago Defender. As the grand-nephew of the publication’s founder, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who started the paper in 1905, he was the second child of three sons born to John and Myrtle Sengstacke on May 29, 1943.
The Family Business
Under his father’s guidance, Chicago Defender Publisher John H.H. Sengstacke, he started working at a young age at the Chicago Daily Defender in 1950, handling odd-end jobs. As he grew older, he worked in the production department, newspaper circulation and on the print machinery. He noticed his father’s love for photography and filming family gatherings — soon adopting a passion for it himself.
As he attended Los Angeles City College, he began photographing all the Black sororities and fraternities — in addition to working as an understudy for famed fashion photographer Lamont McLemore. It was there he started to learn darkroom techniques. After a couple of years, he returned to Chicago, where the civil rights and Black Arts Movement was kicking up steam.
Bobby’s natural ability to connect with people showed throughout his work. Knowing the climate of racial uproar was on the brink, he felt compelled to capture it and portray leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a powerful context. Bobby and other Black photographers collectively agreed to provide this photographic narrative to Black media publications around the country, with the Chicago Defender leading the charge.
In his mini-documentary, The Sengstacke Eye, he describes the importance of documenting leaders such as Dr. King. “Where else can a Black photographer really speak to his people? It was the only Black daily newspaper in the country. The front page is a performing arts stage,” he said.
“The reason my photographs of Dr. King are so outstanding, not for me, but I’ve had too many photo editors and photo researchers say the same thing over and over again, ’your work seems to have captured the essence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s essence and personality.’ That’s what I’ve done.”
Although his upper-middle-class upbringing could have set him apart from the average working-class Black Chicagoan, his family’s social standing in the community brought out a unique approach to their commitment to Black people.
The Civil Rights and Black Arts Movement
A pioneer of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, Haki Madhubuti is founder and publisher of Third World Press Foundation. He says Bobby’s contribution and commitment were crucial to establishing a solid voice during that time for Chicago Black artists.
“We knew that Bobby was in an upper, higher-middle-class family, but that never came out in his actions. The way he involved himself in the arts community — everything from the ‘Wall of Respect’ — the writers, poets, actors, and playwrights came out of that movement. Chicago was central to the whole movement — it was the intellectual center,” he explained. “You look at his body of work — you see everything from his very fine portraits of the Nation of Islam to the streets and Black arts movement in Chicago. There were very few photographers who could match him.”
Over four decades ago, his contribution to the famous mural in Bronzeville, ‘The Wall of Respect,’ which highlighted key African-American public figures and significant milestones in our community was an exhibition at the Chicago Loop public library branch in 1969.
“He was one of the men who were making a name for himself and for the Black Arts Movement. The Movement would never die because you had that body of work which he will be a part of. The photography was critical because it defined a time, a scene, a moment that you just can’t get back anymore,” said Madhubuti.
While he contributed photos to the Defender, his reputation grew, along with opportunities to work with other organizations. During this time, he was the photographer for the Nation of Islam’s publication Mohammed Speaks (currently The Final Call), the City of Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley, and cast photographer for Oscar Brown Jr. productions, Summer in the City and Opportunity Please Knock.
A long-time family friend, John Simmons, was best friends with Bobby’s younger brother, Louis Sengstacke, and began admiring him at a young age. Working at the paper at 16, he gained knowledge in the darkroom and became his assistant.
“Bobby would hang out with people like Herbie Hancock, all kind of hip musicians who were around at that time. We traveled all over the country together. We’ve shot civil rights demonstrations in Georgia. I don’t know how many times we drove out to California together,” recalled Simmons.
In 1969, Bobby traveled to Nashville for a couple of years to participate in Fisk University’s ”artist in residence,”teaching photography and film. His influence on students was lasting — bringing his unique style of Black empowerment and pride that was rarely openly displayed below the Mason-Dixon line during that time. He encouraged John to attend city college and transfer to Fisk in order to take his class. Simmons followed his mentor.
“Bobby brought something to Fisk University that was fresh in creating a photography department with fellow filmmaker David Driscoll,” he said.
Taking Over the Reins
Throughout the following years, he took on various responsibilities as the Defender’s Promotions and Marketing Director, Special Events and Fundraiser for the Bud Billiken Parade, and becoming the Editor and Publisher of the Memphis Tri-State Defender from 1974-1980.
Later, as he performed freelance work for various corporations such as Houston Lighting and Power, New York Public Library, The Phil Donahue Show and Eastman-Kodak Company, he became the president of Sengstacke Newspapers in 1989. The family group of papers included the Michigan Chronicle, The Tri-State Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.
After the passing of John H. H. Sengstacke in 1997, Col. Eugene Scott became publisher of the Chicago Defender in the late nineties until it was sold to Real Times. He later became president of the Chicago Defender Charities, retiring from that position in 2015. He recalls their friendship.
“I really got to know Bobby when I retired from the army and came back to work for the newspaper. I worked closely with Bobby. What Mr. Sengstacke wanted was to get Bobby in some type of mindset to be in charge. He thought some of my discipline would rub off on him, so we were like the ‘Bobbsey Twins’,” he softly laughs. “If either one of us had an issue or a report to give, both of us would have to come to his office and agree.”
With his photographs and film documentaries being selected and shown throughout the country at the most prestigious institutions, Col. Scott knew Bobby was not going to stay the traditional route of his father.
“He was trying to make a business person out of an artist,” Scott said, adding that all of Bobby’s work highlighted Black people.
“You can see the love he had for Black people in his work. The images he presented. The images of the Muslim women from Farrakhan’s organization, Nation of Islam. All the ladies would be sitting together in white. Bobby captured beautiful shots of those women,” said Scott.
Bobby’s images went well beyond celebrities and public figures. His travels in the deep South in the 1980s throughout the early 1990s still captured economic racial disparity on his visits in Mississippi and Alabama.
“This had to be right after slavery, but some of the people were living almost like it was right after slavery as indentured servants and sharecroppers,” said Scott.
Fellow friend and chair of the Black United Fund of Illinois, Professor Robert T. Starks, said, “His major subject was African-Americans, not only the prominent but ordinary African-Americans.” In the 1980s, Starks, along with co-founder Henry English, formed the Black United Fund of Illinois. They approached Bobby.
“We made sure he was a member of the board of directors. He was one of the original members. He performed that role very well. We really depended quite a bit on his role,” said Starks.
Working with the Black United Fund of Illinois was one of many organizations and responsibilities he supported, engaging the needs and economic stimulus for the Black community.
The life-long commitment of service his family held dear, carried over from his father, John Sengstacke, who would repeatedly share these words with his son, Bobby.
“This paper is for the people — we don’t own this newspaper. God has made our family trustees — and don’t you forget it.”
He never forgot as he traveled the world, showing the beauty, pain, despair, and triumphs of African-American people throughout the critical piece of our history.
His works have been exhibited at the Statue of Liberty, The Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Science and Industry as one of the co-founders of Black Creativity, as well as Spelman College, Stanford University, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the University of Illinois-Urbana, the University of Minnesota and the DuSable Museum of African American History. A major exhibit was held of his works in the main Chicago Loop library branch in 1969.
The exhibit featured the highly acclaimed piece “The Wall of Respect: Vestiges, Shards and the Legacy of Black Power.”
Bobby’s legacy lives on in various profiles in Ebony, Jet, Essence, The Washington Post, Houston Post, theChicago Tribune, LIFE, The New York Times, in addition to other licensed use by films such as Spike Lee’sSchool Daze. He is survived by the next generation of Sengstacke leaders.
Recently appointed President of Chicago Defender Charities, Myiti Sengstacke-Rice says, “My dad was a visionary and I am grateful for the gift of life that he instilled in his children. He expressed how proud he was of me for carrying the torch by running the family Charity and Bud Billiken Parade,” she expressed.
His influential body of work is endless, with over 50 mini-documentaries, television commercials and productions under Sengstacke Media Productions.
“We will honor him and his memory, by ensuring that his work and contributions continue to inspire, educate and elevate our community for many generations to come.”
He is survived by his wife, Jacquelyn Sengstacke, and their two children, Domenic and Jasmine, his first wife, VeeLa Sengstacke-Gonzales and their children, Myiti Sengstacke-Rice, Omhari and Hasani. Their older son, Saief, passed away in 2009. He is also survived by his daughter-in-law, Shantella, and his grandchildren, Imani, Malahni and Montrel.
Col. Scott recalls the thing that stood out the most for him about Bobby Sengstacke’s character.
“He was such a good-natured individual who was smart as hell about journalism. He could write a great story. He knew all the essence to capture the story. I was impressed with my time with Bobby,” reminisced Scott on what stood out most about Bobby’s character.
After working in the film industry for over nearly five decades, filming television shows and feature films, the Emmy-award winning cinematographer John Simmons reflected on Sengstacke’s deep impact on his life and career.
“Because I take pictures every day, I have a responsibility to humanity and my people to be able to portray them with dignity. To make one picture and tell a story of humanness, affection and let it have its own spirit and life. Bobby’s work would never be complete because his pictures will live forever.”
Paper Trail:100 years of the Chicago Defender