Fortune, T. Thomas

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Fortune, T. Thomas

October 3, 1856
June 2, 1928

Timothy Thomas Fortune, a journalist and civil rights activist, was born a slave in Marianna, Florida, to Emanuel and Sarah Jane Fortune. After Emancipation his father, active in Republican politics, was forced by white violence to flee to Jacksonville, where young Fortune became a compositor at a local newspaper. In the winter of 1874, Fortune enrolled at Howard University with less than three years of formal education behind him. However, financial troubles compelled him to drop out, and he began working for a black weekly paper. Fortune married Carrie C. Smiley in the late 1870s and returned to Florida, where he worked on several newspapers. Chafing under southern racism, Fortune gladly moved to New York City in 1881 to accept a position with a white-owned weekly publication.

In New York, Fortune joined with other African Americans who had founded a tabloid called Rumor (soon known as the New York Globe ), and he became managing editor. Fortune set the Globe 's militant tone in his editorial advocacy of black civil rights and self-defense; he also shared Henry George's critique of monopoly and endorsed his land distribution program. Moreover, at a time when most black newspapers backed the Republican Party, Fortune favored political independence. He expanded on these radical themes in his book, Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, published in 1884.

The Globe folded in early November 1884. Just two weeks later, however, Fortune was producing the Freeman (soon called the New York Freeman ), a four-page weekly whose circulation stood at five thousand by the end of its first year. In October 1887 Fortune left the Freeman, which

became the New York Age, and began to court Republican support. (Fortune supported Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland in 1888.) He returned as editor in February 1889, renouncing his past alliance with the Democrats but continuing to criticize the Republicans' inaction on racial issues. He supplemented his income by writing for the New York Sun, a leading newspaper.

Fortune was also a key figure in the Afro-American League (AAL), an early and important vehicle for civil rights agitation. In May 1887, Fortune proposed the formation of a nonpartisan organization to challenge lynch law in the South and to demand equal opportunities in voting, education, and public accommodations. He also issued the call for the AAL's first national convention; at the January 1890 meeting, he was elected secretary. The AAL planned to fight Jim Crow through legal means; after Fortune himself was refused service at a New York hotel bar, the AAL sued the proprietor and won. But without adequate resources to mount regular legal challenges, and lacking support from prominent black Republicans, by 1893 the organization had sunk into decline.

Fortune continued to expose racist abuses, particularly in the South. After Ida B. Wells's Memphis newspaper office was destroyed by a mob, he offered her work on the Age and published her stunning exposé of lynching. In 1894 to 1895, Fortune himself toured the South and reported on worsening conditions there. Despite the revival in 1898 of the old AAL as the Afro-American Council (AAC), Fortune had by then grown deeply pessimistic about the possibilities for securing racial justice.

During this period of disaffection, Fortune solidified his relationship with Booker T. Washington. The two had first come into contact in the early 1880s and, despite their differences, Fortune helped launch the accommodationist Washington as a national figure. Fortune not only publicized the Tuskegee Institute in the Age, but also employed his literary talents to polish and promote Washington's views; he wrote a long introduction to Black-Belt Diamonds (1898), a collection of Washington's speeches, and he edited and revised Washington's The Future of the American Negro (1898). Because Fortune's only income came from journalism, the remuneration he received for these efforts, as well as emergency loans from Washington, helped tide him over through hard times.

As Washington rose in national stature, he relied increasingly on Fortunehis closest ally in the Northto advance his political agenda. Fortune, aware that Washington occasionally backed legal challenges to Jim Crow behind the scenes, tried to make Washington's views more palatable to a northern black audience. Fortune served as chair of the executive committee of the National Negro Business League (NNBL), formed by Washington in 1900. As AAC president in the early 1900s, Fortune helped squelch anti-Washington sentiment spearheaded by William Monroe Trotter of the Boston Guardian.

One reason for Fortune's efforts on Washington's behalf was that he hoped for a political appointment to resolve his financial difficulties. He did manage, in late 1902, to secure a six-month post as special immigrant agent of the U.S. Treasury Department, investigating racial conditions in Hawaii and the Philippine Islands. Evidence suggests, however, that Washington thwarted Fortune's future aspirations, possibly because he realized a government position would increase Fortune's economic independence.

Fortune's greatest usefulness to Washington had been as an "independent" journalist, and observers had grown skeptical of his independence; as early as 1902 the Guardian had written scathingly that "much of the fat that now greases the way for the Age, comes out of the Tuskegee larder." Moreover, Fortune continued to take militant political stances that were not in line with Washington's own positions.

In February 1907 Washington secretly acquired direct control of the Age, and his heavy-handed management contributed to Fortune's nervous breakdown later that year. Believing he had been called by God to preach to the race, Fortune sold his shares in the Age to Fred R. Moore (18571943), a Washington loyalist, who claimed a "white friend" had backed the transaction. Unknown to Fortune, it was Washington's money that had clinched the deal.

Fortune left for Chicago and sought unsuccessfully to reestablish himself. With little to lose, he disclosed Washington's financial interest in the Age and was lauded by Washington's rivals. But this did nothing to resolve his deepening financial crisis. His marriage had collapsed by 1906; now he lost his home. Suffering from alcoholism and unable to obtain steady work, he scraped by for years on whatever intermittent journalistic employment he could find.

The Age, meanwhile, deteriorated dramatically in quality, and Washington lured Fortune back in the fall of 1914. While the compensation was poor and Fortune's editorial independence limited, he remained with the Age for three years. Thereafter he worked for papers in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

T. Thomas Fortune

"We know our rights and have the power to defend them."

john bracey, august meier and elliott rudwick, eds., black nationalism in america (indianapolis: bobs-merrill, 1970), p. 212.

The early 1920s ushered in new political possibilities for African Americans and brought Fortune back from the edge of destitution and despair. In 1923 he became editor of the Negro World, the organ of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. While Fortune never embraced the Garvey movement, he had become deeply disillusioned by black people's failure to attain equality and justice by means of the political process. Through his work for the Negro World, he was able to regain his selfrespect. In the late 1920s Fortune's colleagues in the National Negro Press Association (over which he himself had presided some thirty years before) lauded him as the "dean" of Negro journalists. He edited the World until his death on June 2, 1928, at the home of his son Fred in the Philadelphia area.

Fortune's erratic career has somewhat obscured his own historical importance. Before Booker T. Washington's ascent as a national figure began in 1895, Fortune himself was acknowledged as the major spokesperson for black America. His leadership role in the late nineteenth-century civil rights movement was instrumental in shaping the debate over how African Americans would respond to their legal and social oppression in the decades to come.

See also Guardian, The ; Emancipation in the United States; Garvey, Marcus; Journalism; Negro World ; Trotter, William Monroe; Tuskegee University; Universal Negro Improvement Association; Washington, Booker T.; Wells-Barnett, Ida B.


Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 19011915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Penn, I. Garland. The Afro-American Press and its Editors (1891). Reprint, New York: Arno, 1969.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou. T. Thomas Fortune, Militant Journalist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Wolseley, Roland E. The Black Press, U.S.A., 2d ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.

tami j. friedman (1996)