Whittier Sengstacke Jr., former editor of the Tri-State Defender and the dedicated newsman credited with helping the newspaper continue rolling as it encountered turbulence in response to coverage of lynchings in the South, has died at 76.
Mr. Sengstacke died early Saturday morning. His uncle, John Herman Henry Sengstacke Jr., founded the Tri-State Defender in November 1951.
Born in Chicago on June 22, 1944, he was the second of Mattie and Whittier Sengstacke Sr.’s four children. His father came to Memphis as the publisher and editor in the early 1950’s.
The publishing empire he was born into was built upon the pioneering work of John Sengstacke’s uncle, Robert Abbott. Once John Sengstacke assumed leadership, he built the largest Black-owned newspaper chain in American history.
As publishers of Black newspapers across the nation provided extensive and detailed coverage of 14-year-old Till’s lynching (Aug. 28, 1955) and the ensuing trial, the Tri-State Defender did likewise, with notable photos from renowned civil rights photographer Ernest C. Withers.
Following Mamie Till’s vow to let America see what the lynching had done to her son, African-American newspapers ran photos of the bloated, disfigured body. After becoming editor of the TSD in the late 1960s, Mr. Sengstacke continued writing about Till’s lynching, along with others, in the Mid-South.
The White printer, who produced the Tri-State Defender for distribution at that time, refused to print the newspaper because Till’s murder and other lynchings consistently received prominent coverage.
During that critical period, after each edition had been laid out, Mr. Sengstacke flew to Chicago to get the newspaper printed at the Chicago Defender.
Mr. Sengstacke’s sister, Ethel Sengstacke, “was barely a teenager.”
“… I remember going to the big Chicago Defender building. … There was a massive printing machine down on the lower level. I don’t know if it was considered the basement or not. But it was exactly like the big printer at The Commercial Appeal I saw years later.”
She remembers her brother being “most proud to have been born into a family of great writers.” She also recalled that he considered one of his greatest achievements to have been earning two degrees simultaneously when equal access to higher education was not readily available to African Americans.
Widely praised as a stage actor in Chicago, Mr. Sengstacke earned dual bachelor’s degrees in speech and journalism.
“Whit graduated from Tennessee State University and had went back to Chicago to work on his masters at the University of Chicago,” said Ethel Sengstacke. “My dad decided at that time to make Whittier the new Tri-State Defender editor, and he moved back to Memphis.”
After retirement, Mr. Whittier moved into the family’s Park Avenue home in Orange Mound. As his health began to fail, he moved into a skilled nursing facility.
“At the Signature St. Francis Hospital facility, Whit was named ‘Senior of the Year,’” said Ethel Sengstacke. “I came over to see him receive his award, but I couldn’t get over there to him for all the ladies sitting around the table.”
Mr. Sengstacke leaves two sisters: Ethel Sengstacke of Memphis and Astrid Sengstacke Jones of Sugar Land, Texas; his brother, Fred Sengstacke of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and a host of other relatives and friends.
A public memorial service is planned for March, with details pending.
Serenity Funeral Home has charge.