Fuller, Thomas O.
Thomas O. Fuller
Senator, educator, entrepreneur
During the latter part of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, Thomas O. Fuller made a sweeping contribution to African Americans through a variety of endeavors, ranging from teacher, to school principal, from state senator to religious leadership, and from entrepreneurship to writings. His work also spanned two states: North Carolina (where he was its first African American state senator) and Tennessee (where he became a college president). Although his vision for racial uplift was demonstrated in all of his work, he never saw himself as the racial leader that he was.
Born in Franklinton, North Carolina, near Raleigh, Thomas Oscar Fuller Sr. was the youngest child of former slave J. Henderson Fuller, a wheelwright and carpenter, who had learned to read while still enslaved. Since his services were in constant demand, he was able to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of a woman named Mary Eliza Fuller, who became his wife and mother of their fourteen children. Aunt Mary, as she became known, served as a nurse to sick blacks and whites. After the Civil War ended, the elder Fuller bought property in Franklinton and moved his family into their new home. During Reconstruction he became involved in politics, serving as delegate to various Republican conventions and as magistrate.
Achieves Academic and Divinity Degrees
When he was five years old, Thomas Fuller began his education in a private school. In 1882 North Carolina established the State Normal School in Franklinton, where Fuller continued his studies until 1885, when he enrolled in Shaw University, a black college in Raleigh. In addition to the academic course, he took simultaneously a four-year course in theology. In 1890, his senior year at Shaw, Fuller became an assistant teacher for the American Baptist Home Mission Society. He worked his way through college and graduated as valedictorian in May 1890 with a B.A. degree. Other degrees followed: M.A., Shaw University (1893); Ph.D., the Agricultural and Mechanical College at Normal, Alabama (1906); and D.D., Shaw University (1910).
Although Fuller began to preach in 1886 while in his senior year at Shaw, he was not ordained in the Baptist church until April 30, 1890. Upon graduation, Fuller taught in the public schools of Granville County, North Carolina, where he worked for $28 a month. Then he moved to a second school in that county, located in Berea. Still teaching in April 1891 he also headed Belton Creek Church near Oxford. Within the year, with donations from a white friend, he led the construction of a new facility. Within one year, Fuller was called to pastorates at eleven churches in the area.
The Baptists in Franklinton called Fuller back to his home town in 1892 for the purpose of organizing a school while he continued his pastoral work. He established the Colored Graded School and in 1893 the Girls' Training School in Franklinton, which attracted students from all over the state. He oversaw the construction of a new building for the girls' school, which was completed in 1894. In 1895, Fuller resigned and became principal of Shiloh Institute at Warrenton, which the Shiloh Association of Baptist churches owned. He also took charge of a nearby church. He became recording secretary of the North Carolina State Sunday-School Convention.
Elected to North Carolina State Senate
By now his success as school principal and pastor was so well known that he was asked to accept the nomination for state senate. Now living in Warrenton, he was in the midst of a political hotbed, a place where black Republicans had held various county offices and were in complete charge of county and district party machinery. Fuller won the election handily in 1898, representing the Eleventh District (Warren and Vance counties) and became the first African American in the state senate and the only one until 1968. The Wilmington riot, in which many people died, followed the election. The state had gone Democratic while Republicans had won in Warren and Vance counties; this outcome provoked the cry of "White Supremacy" and "Negro Domination," wrote Fuller in his memoir, Twenty Years in Public Life. These events marked a dark chapter in the state's political history, as Democrats used various methods to gain control of counties and cities with black Republican officials. Fuller responded in "An Address to the Colored People of the Eleventh Senatorial District of North Carolina," published in his memoir. He called for calm and assured blacks that the color of their skin could "never become legal barriers to the exercise of the right of franchise." He called himself an educator and a humble Christian worker who refused to serve in any capacity that would jeopardize what he had achieved; he would work in the interest of his constituents.
- Born in Franklinton, North Carolina on October 25
- Becomes ordained in the Baptist church
- Receives B.S. degree from Shaw University; begins teaching in public schools
- Establishes Colored Grade School in Franklinton; establishes Girls' Training School in Franklinton; receives M.A. degree from Shaw University
- Becomes principal of Shiloh Institute at Warrenton
- Elected first African American senator in North Carolina
- Moves to Memphis, Tennessee; becomes pastor of First Baptist Church
- Becomes principal of Howe Institute; later becomes president
- Receives Ph.D. degree from Alabama A&M College
- Receives D.D. degree from Shaw University
- Dies in Memphis, Tennessee on June 21
When the state assembly convened in January 1899, Fuller was the last senator to be seated, following that of all whites who were seated in alphabetical order. His seat on the outside row next to the lobby positioned him to hear comments from those outside, including such racist remarks as "Here is a Negro in the Senate—Never mind we'll fix that within the next two years," which he recorded in his memoir. He witnessed another display of racism when the senate refused to appoint him to any committees. Nonetheless, Fuller persevered and was successful in the work that he did for the benefit of both white and black races. In his judgment, the most significant service that he rendered while in the legislature clearly put him on records in political annals. He drafted and introduced a bill to enable the criminal court to meet every four (instead of every six) months, to give that court jurisdiction over the superior court, and thus decrease docket loads and result in speedier trials. He supported temperance and every move to curtail liquor traffic in Warrenton; his lobbying for the Warren County Dispensary Bill led to the closing of a local bar, replacing it with a dispensary.
For African Americans, however, Fuller's work was more notable than he acknowledged. He successfully led the political task of incorporating North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association—later known as North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company—making it a legitimate insurance industry in the state. Ultimately, it became a prosperous black insurance enterprise and the nation's largest black insurance company. Later on, Fuller became a vice-president of North Carolina Mutual. Next, Fuller sponsored a bill to reverse the law and allow outside labor to recruit black workers from within the state. He was unsuccessful in his protest against a bill to disfranchise blacks and to use literacy tests, a poll tax, and a grandfather clause to return blacks to the restricted legal status that they had known early on. His eloquent address before the senate fell on deaf ears.
Becomes President of Howe Institute
After a two-year term in office, Fuller moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1900 and became pastor of First Baptist Church on St. Paul Avenue. He continued to serve the Baptist church at both the local and national levels. In 1902, Fuller was elected principal of the coeducational and normal school, Howe Institute in Memphis, which the Baptists of West Tennessee operated. There he also taught theology, law, and other subjects. His appointment was with the understanding that he would serve only a short time, until a full-time principal could he hired. But sometime later on the school was renamed Howe Junior College, and he served as president until he retired in 1931. Fuller devoted his time to literary work in connection with First Baptist Church. Around this time Fuller wrote Pictorial History of the American Negro (1930).
In 1927, officials at Howe began talks of a merger with the once Nashville-based Roger Williams College, which was founded in 1864 and offered elementary classes to black Baptist preachers. This college was operated under the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York. In 1883 it was incorporated as Roger Williams University. Mysterious fires destroyed it, and after it relocated in Nashville the school continued to experience financial problems. By the time of merger talks, the school had no president. Roger Williams moved to Memphis and on December 29, 1929 merged with Howe Institute. Roger Williams offered college courses while Howe Junior College offered high school or academy courses. The school's trustees asked Fuller to return to the presidency of Roger Williams-Howe in 1934 and help resolve its critical financial problems.
Acknowledges Work of Baptist Women
Fuller was able to mix well his work as preacher, college president, and writer. In his writings, whether about religious work or teaching, he continued to praise women. In his book History of the Negro Baptists in Tennessee, Fuller praised the work of women in local churches in Women's Societies, missionary societies, auxiliaries in all of the Baptist associations, as missionaries, Red Circles Junior Matrons, and in Bible bands. He criticized the lack of definite programs of instruction for the women and called for Baptist churches to establish a special course in religious training for women. The course would include motherhood, training of children, the conduct of a Christian home, health, and morals. The female students should study noted women of the Bible. He also acknowledged national women of prominence, including Sarah Willie Layten of Philadelphia; Mary W. Parrish of Louisville, Kentucky; Nannie Helen Burroughs of Washington, D.C.; and Virginia W. Broughton of Tennessee.
Fuller also held in high esteem educator Booker T. Washington, founder and president of Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama. He respected him for his "methods, meetings, ideas and policies," as he noted in his memoir. Fuller attended the farmers' conferences that Washington held at Tuskegee and supported his views on industrial education and his teachings that called for jobs, homes, and schools for African American people. On many occasions he traveled the country with Washington.
Fuller's religious work included membership in the Memphis Association of Sunday School Teachers, and he was the editor of the Signal, the organ of the Baptist of West Tennessee. He was also a member of the Afro-American League. He chaired the Trustee Board of the Orphans and Old Ladies' Home in 1906 and helped the home to construct a new building. Among his business ventures, he was president of Our Own Real Estate Company in Memphis and organizer of the Bunker Hill Grocery Company.
In addition to works previously mentioned, Fuller wrote Bright Lights in Memory's Hall, Flashes and Gems of Oratory, Banks and Banking (1920), Flashes and Gems of Thought and Eloquence (1920), Ridging the Racial Chasms: A Brief Survey of Inter-Racial Attitudes and Relations (1937), Story of Life among Negroes (1938), and Notes on Parliamentary Law (1940).
While little is known of his personal life, Fuller had four wives. The first, Lucy G. Davis, whom he married in 1890, died sometime during the time that they lived in Franklinton. He married Laura Faulkner in 1898 and had two sons, Thomas Jr. (born in North Carolina) and Erskine (born in Tennessee); Erskine died in 1909. Laura Fuller died while the boys were very young, and Fuller married a woman named Rosa, who also died; then he married Dixie Williams. Thomas Fuller died in Memphis on June 21, 1942, and was buried at New Park Cemetery in Memphis.
A former student at Howe, Lula I. Hobson wrote an account of the school entitled "Howe Institute as First I Saw It and Now; or, A Short Story of Progress." In her sketch of Fuller she wrote, "as an orator he is matchless"; he never failed "to leave his audience with rich and coveted thoughts." Although Fuller never characterized himself as a race man, he was without a doubt a civil rights leader/activist. Through his work as a North Carolina legislator, educator, businessman, orator, preacher, and writer, Fuller helped to enhance African Americans, both materially and intellectually. He helped a number of African Americans to open businesses and purchase property in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Edmonds, Helen G. The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894–1901. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1951.
Weare, Walter B. Black Business in the New South: A Social History of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
Hobson, Lula I. "Howe As I First Saw It and Now; or, A Short Story of Progress." Memphis: Howe Institute Printing Department, n.d. Located in the John Mercer Langston Collection, Collected Items, Box 5, folder 32. Special Collections, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.
Lovett, Bobby L. "Roger Williams University." The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Online edition. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002.