Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Journalist Ethan Michaeli had a pressing question when he interviewed for a job with the celebrated black newspaper the Chicago Defender in 1991. “Do white people work here?” he asked.

City editor Alberta Leak laughed and assured him that they did—and always had. Michaeli landed the job, embarking on a journalism career and a yearslong education in the history of white and black America. Now Michaeli is sharing what he learned in his new book, The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America.

It turns out that Michaeli’s interview query illuminated an important aspect of the Defender’s vision and impact. He was far from the first white employee. “I wasn’t even the101st, not even probably the 1,001st,” he says. “I realized that just as Frederick Douglass’ vision of America was an integrated vision, one that respected everybody for their own background and perspectives, that’s what the Defender always was. It’s an African-American–owned newspaper that works for an integrated country.”

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