Fortune, Timothy Thomas
Fortune, Timothy Thomas 1856–1928
Timothy Thomas Fortune is one of the earliest black journalists and civil rights activists whose career was devoted entirely to the advocacy of laws that would grant equal political rights to blacks as equals in the United States. He was the founder of the first major all-black civil rights organization, the Afro-American League.
Timothy Thomas Fortune was born into a slave family inMarianna, Florida, onOctober3,1856.Hewasfreedfrom slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. He attended a school established by the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War and eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a compositor for a black newspaper. While in Washington, Fortune attended Howard University from 1876 to 1877. Throughout his life, Fortune was an advocate for the rights of blacks and a fighter against racial discrimination and segregation.
In 1880, he moved to New York City, where he established himself as a leading journalist, editor, and publisher. He was the editor and publisher of the New York Globe and the New York Freeman, which later became the New York Age. Fortune’s publications were the most consulted among blacks for information on racial discrimination, lynching, mob violence, and disenfranchisement.
What set Fortune apart from others was his work in the broad area of civil rights for blacks. Fortune dedicated himself to what he called “Problems Peculiar to the Negro”through the National Afro-American League, which he founded. It took three years, from 1887 to 1890, to organize the National Afro-American League. At its first convention in Chicago in 1890, the league outlined a six-point program:
- securing voting rights;
- passing legislation to combat lynching;
- abolishing inequities in state funding of public education for blacks and whites;
- reforming the southern penitentiary system— particularly its chain gang and convict release practices;
- combating discrimination in railroad and public-travel conveyances;
- and eliminating discrimination in public places, hotels, and theaters.
Fortune’s organization, established ten years after the period of Reconstruction, focused on issues particular to the South, which at the time was moving swiftly to erode the rights blacks had won through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875. The intent of the southern states was to disenfranchise and completely remove blacks from participation in the region’s politics. By 1890, all the southern states had rewritten their constitutions to reestablish white supremacy and legal segregation based on race and color in all facets of life. Not a single point outlined by the league found backing or public support at the local, state, or national level.
Though Fortune was not able to secure support or funding for any of his six points, he found a way to be useful by agitating for the passage of the Blair Education bill, which had been introduced in Congress in 1881. The bill aimed at providing public funding of education for blacks and whites, especially in the South. Fortune’s organization joined the fight to pass the measure in 1888, but it was eventually killed in 1890.
The National Afro-American League struggled to establish itself as a legitimate civil rights organization from 1890 to 1908. A part of the problem of the league finding its niche was the coming to prominence of Booker T. Washington in 1895. Washington’s speech in Atlanta in 1895 endeared him to influential whites in the North and South. He essentially assured whites that blacks would stay in their places and work on improving themselves rather than agitate for integration and equality.
Through his league, however, Fortune was able to provide a debating platform not only for his ideals but for the views of such notables as W. E. B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, Booker T. Washington, Bishop Alexander Walters, Ida B. Wells, and several others. In 1898, Fortune changed the name of his organization to the Afro-American Council. Whether this had an impact on the work of the organization has never been clearly established.
The task before the Afro-American Council was impossible to achieve. It attempted to forge a consensus among a cadre of black leaders so that they could work together on such issues as funding of public schools for blacks throughout America. The council could not agree on a leadership style, ideology, or a philosophy, nor agree on methods to be used to achieve goals that would benefit blacks. Ultimately, the Afro-American Council failed to achieve its goal of being an organization of blacks, by blacks, and for blacks. The failure of the Afro-American Council was not the failure of Fortune. His efforts exposed the weaknesses of the people he fought for: They were disunited and could not trust each other, put aside their egos, face their fears and insecurities, or contain their anger and follow other blacks in the interests of their community. This experience was an invaluable lesson on black leadership, a critical issue that continues to be a serious problem for black America.
The failure of the Afro-American Council led directly to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It is not lost on astute observers that where an organization composed entirely of blacks was not able to survive, a reformed civil rights organization composed of New York socialites, blacks, and Jews could survive and has continued to do so.
W. E. B. Du Bois was the most prominent member of the Afro-American Council to become a member of the NAACP. For a time, he attempted to have the Blair Education bill revived, but it was doomed because by the late nineteenth century, northern white liberals and other constituencies had decided to leave blacks to the vagaries of the white South. It is worth noting that the Blair Education bill was aimed as much at illiterate whites as illiterate blacks. In essence, if it meant educating blacks as well, the South refused federal assistance and support for publicly funded education for its own people. It did not matter even if blacks would be educated in separate schools, showing the level of hatred southern whites in charge of the governments in the several states had for blacks.
Fortune remained a firebrand for justice for blacks throughout his life. He never thought it was right to have separate classrooms for blacks and whites. He always thought blacks should enjoy the rights and benefits of full citizenship in American society. When he died in Philadelphia in 1928 at age seventy-two, the words he uttered at the first convention of the National Afro-American League in Chicago in 1890 still had the ring of truth:
As the agitation, which culminated in the abolition of African slavery in this country, covered a period of fifty years, so may we expect that before the rights conferred upon us by the war amendments are fully conceded, a full century will have passed away. We have undertaken no child’s play. We have undertaken a serious work which will tax and exhaust the best intelligence of the race for the next century.
Crofts, Daniel W. 1971. “The Black Response to the Blair Education Bill.”Journal of Southern History 37 (1): 41–65.
Cruse, Harold. 1987. Plural but Equal: A Critical Study of Blacks and Minorities and America’s Plural Society. New York: William Morrow.
Franklin, John Hope. 1947. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. New York: Knopf.
———, and August Meier, eds. 1981. Black Leaders of the 20th Century. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Russell Mootry Jr.