Though not as well known today as many of his contemporaries, T. Thomas Fortune was the foremost African American journalist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using his editorial position at a series of black newspapers in New York City, Fortune established himself as a leading spokesman and defender of the rights of African Americans in both the South and the North.
Besides using his journalistic pulpit to demand equal economic opportunity for blacks and equal protection under the law, Fortune founded the Afro-American League, an equal rights organization that preceded the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to extend this battle into the political arena. But his great hopes for the league never materialized, and he gradually began to abandon his militant position in favor of educator/activist Booker T. Washington’s compromising accommodationist stance. Fortune’s later years, wracked by alcohol abuse, depression, and poverty, precipitated a decline in his once-prominent reputation as well.
Fortune was born a slave in Marianna, Florida, in 1856. Early in his boyhood, he was exposed to the three factors that later dominated his life—journalism, white racism, and politics.
After slavery was abolished in 1863, his father, Emanuel Fortune, went on to become a member of the 1868 Florida constitutional convention and the state’s House of Representatives. Southern whites, resentful of black political participation, intimidated blacks through acts of violence; Jackson County, the Fortunes’ hometown, witnessed some of the worst examples. Continued threats from the Ku Klux Klan forced the elder Fortune to move to Jacksonville, where he remained active in Florida politics until the 1890s.
Young Fortune became a page in the state Senate, observing firsthand some of the more sordid aspects of post-Civil War Reconstruction era politics, in particular, white politicians who took advantage of black voters. He also preferred to spend his time hanging around the offices of various local newspapers rather than in school. As a result, when he left Florida in 1876 at the age of 19, his formal education consisted of only a few months spent in schools sponsored by the Freedmen’s Bureau, but his informal education had trained him to be a printer’s apprentice.
Fortune entered the preparatory department of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Lack of money limited his stay
Born Timothy Thomas Fortune, October 3, 1856, in Marianna, FL; died June 2, 1928, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Emanuel (a slave turned political leader after the Civil War) and Sarah Jane Fortune; married Carrie C Smiley (separated, 1906); children: Jessie, Stewart (died in infancy), Fred. Education: Attended Howard University, Washington, DC, 1876-77. Politics: Independent.
Printer’s apprentice, late 1870s; printer, then editor at New York Sun, beginning 1881; editor and co-owner of New York Globe, New York Freeman, and New York Age, 1881-1907; secretary, Afro-American League, 1890-93; president, National Afro-American Council, 1902-04; editorial writer, Norfolk journal and Globe, 1919-28; editor, Negro World, 1923-28. to one year, and he spent part of his time there working in the print shop of the People’s Advocate, an early black newspaper. While in Washington he married his Florida sweetheart, Carrie Smiley. For the next two years, he taught school and read voraciously on his own in literature, history, government, and law. Largely self-taught, he developed a distinctive writing and eloquent speaking style that few of his contemporaries could match.
Back in Florida, Fortune seethed under the South’s racial intolerance, which seemed to increase after Reconstruction, the period of postwar transition during which the southern states were reintegrated into the Union. Leaving for good in 1881, he moved to New York City, working as a printer at the New York Sun. Soon he caught the attention of Sun editor Charles A. Dana, who promoted him to the editorial staff. But within the year Fortune left to follow in the footsteps of earlier black writers like John B. Russwurm and Frederick Douglass who had established their own newspapers to voice the black cause. Securing financial backing, he became editor and co-owner first of the weekly New York Globe, and then of the New York Freeman, which in 1887 was renamed the New York Age. It soon became the country’s leading black newspaper.
Part of the reason for the papers’ success was their high literary quality and Fortune’s meticulous editing. More important, however, were the distinctive editorials written by Fortune. His unabashed and indignant denunciations of American racism, as well as his reasoned arguments in favor of equal treatment and equality for blacks, made him the most influential black journalist in the United States.
Early on he summed up his viewpoint in an essay entitled “The Editor’s Mission.” Blacks must have a voice in deciding their own destiny, Fortune wrote, and not trust whites to define their “place.” Since most of the northern and southern white press was opposed to equal rights, blacks needed their own newspapers to counter this influence. “The mark of color,” he said, made the African American “a social pariah, to be robbed, beaten, and lynched,” and one who “has got his own salvation to work out, of equality before the laws, with almost the entire population of the country arrayed against him.” Leading this struggle was the special mission of the black editor.
Typical of his editorials was Fortune’s scathing critique of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1883 decision, which declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. (The Civil Rights Act had guaranteed equal justice to all, regardless of race.) The ruling left blacks feeling as if they had been “baptized in ice water,” he wrote. “We are declared to be created equal, and entitled to certain rights,” but given the Court’s interpretation “there is no law to protect us in the enjoyment of them. We are aliens in our own land.”
The Militant Editor
Increasingly bitter over governmental failure to protect its black citizens, Fortune began to urge blacks not only to defend themselves with physical force but also “to assert their manhood and citizenship” by striking back against white outrages. “We do not counsel violence,” he wrote in a Globe editorial, “we counsel manly retaliation.” Frequent similar remarks began to alarm both whites and cautious blacks, giving Fortune a growing reputation as a dangerous agitator.
Continuing his outspoken crusade against segregation and for equal rights, Fortune campaigned against racially separate schools in New York City. Occasionally he was arrested for protesting against racial discrimination in public accommodations. Typical of his denunciation of any form of racial distinction was his attack on antimiscegenation laws, which prohibited sexual relations between a man and a woman of different races, and his defense of the rights of persons of different racial backgrounds to marry. He also began popularizing the term “Afro-American” in contrast to the more popular use at the time of “colored” and “Negro.”
The publication of Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics in the South in 1884 was the crowning effort of this radical phase of Fortune’s career. Divided into two parts, the book first bitterly and eloquently rebuked American racism. Speaking firsthand, Fortune described the prejudices of white society, particularly in the current South where blacks “are more absolutely under the control of the southern whites; they are more systematically robbed of their labor; they are more poorly housed, clothed and fed, than under the slave regime.”
In the book’s second half, Fortune applied the theories of American economist Henry George and German political philosopher Karl Marx to southern society, portraying blacks as akin to peasant and laboring classes throughout the world. He predicted that the region’s future battles would not be racial or political, but labor-based. Calling for organization and union between northern and southern laborers, black and white, he concluded that “the condition of the black and white laborer is the same, and…consequently their cause is common.”
Redemption Through Politics
Though his primary roles remained those of editor and journalist, Fortune increasingly regarded political activity as indispensable to achieving his goal of equal rights for all. Black Americans would have to use their political rights to protect themselves and determine their own destiny. But his disillusionment with the existing political parties and skepticism of white politicians made this a tortuous path to chart or follow.
Unlike most African Americans of his era, Fortune held no special affinity for the Republican Party. While most black leaders and black newspapers felt a special allegiance to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Fortune denounced the Compromise of 1877, whereby the Republicans ended Reconstruction and sacrificed the constitutional rights of southern blacks to retain the presidency.
His 1885 pamphlet, The Negro in Politics, openly challenged Frederick Douglass’s dictum that “the Republican Party is the ship, all else the open sea.” Instead, Fortune decreed “Race first, then party!” Declaring that the Republicans had deserted their black supporters, he actively campaigned for Grover Cleveland, the Democratic presidential candidate, in 1888. But after Cleveland’s defeat, he acknowledged that the southern-dominated Democratic party was hopelessly racist and grudgingly became a nominal Republican.
Besides attempting to mobilize black Americans through the press and political action, Fortune proposed the creation of an Afro-American League. As set forth in an 1887 editorial, he envisioned a national all-black coalition of state and local chapters to assert equal rights and protest discrimination, disenfranchisement, lynching, and mob law.
In December of 1889, more than one hundred delegates from 23 states met in Chicago to organize the league. Their goal was attaining full citizenship and equality. Speaking as temporary chairman, Fortune declared, “We shall no longer accept in silence a condition which degrades manhood and makes a mockery of our citizenship.”
Instead of choosing the controversial Fortune, delegates elected a more conciliatory figure as league president: Joseph C Price, president of Livingstone College. Fortune became the secretary. Despite his strenuous efforts to organize local chapters and raise funds, the league faltered. At its second convention in 1891, delegates came from only seven states. Hopes for a significant legal victory in a railroad discrimination case to publicize the organization and its mission were thwarted. Lack of funds and mass support caused the league to fold in 1893.
Five years later the idea was resurrected by the National Afro-American Council. Fortune now had doubts about such an organization and initially refused to accept its presidency. But he remained close to the group and became president in 1902. Like its predecessor, the council made few achievements. Fortune, discouraged over the seeming apathy of the black masses, resigned from the presidency in 1904.
The Perils of Independent Thinking
After the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895, Fortune became the best-known militant black spokesman in the North. But his crusading attitude and political independence exacted a toll. Most small newspapers of his era, white or black, depended upon political advertising and patronage as their main source of income. Black newspapers generally supported the Republican Party. When Fortune proudly trumpeted his independent political leanings, he effectively closed the door on Republican monetary support or advertising.
As a result, Fortune’s papers faced recurring financial crises. Compelled to seek outside work, he frequently freelanced for his old paper, the Sun, and many other publications. Gradually he became dependent upon small sums from Booker T. Washington, the more pragmatic and conciliatory educator, and black leader.
Alliance With Washington
Washington and Fortune seemingly made strange bedfellows. Apparent opposites—the former a soft-spoken accommodationist and the latter a militant agitator—in actuality, they were very good friends who corresponded almost daily throughout the 1890s. Their relationship was based on mutual affection, mutual self-interest, similar backgrounds, and the same ultimate goals for people of color. Born as slaves in the same year and growing up in the Reconstruction South, both men felt a deep obligation to their native region and a duty to improve the condition of southern blacks.
Like Washington, Fortune emphasized the importance of education and believed that practical vocational training was the immediate educational need for blacks as they emerged from slavery. He, too, counseled success through thrift, hard work, and the acquisition of land, believing that education and economic progress were necessary before blacks could attain full citizenship rights.
Although the two leaders played different roles and presented contrasting public images, their alliance was mutually useful. Fortune was the editor of the leading black newspaper, and Washington needed the Age to present and defend his ideas and methods. Fortune also helped edit Washington’s speeches and was the ghostwriter for books and articles appearing under his name, including A New Negro for a New Century and The Negro in Business.
Similarly, as Washington’s reputation and influence grew, particularly in Republican circles, he could be a powerful friend. For years he secretly subsidized the Age, helping to keep it solvent. Fortune hoped for Washington’s intercession with President Theodore Roosevelt for a permanent political appointment, but all he received was a temporary mission to the Philippines in 1903.
Fortune’s dependency on Washington continued to grow. He bought an expensive house, Maple Hill, in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1901. Its mortgage payments, added to the financial woes of the Age, compounded his monetary problems. As attacks mounted on Washington for his accommodationist methods, Fortune felt compelled to defend his friend. But Washington’s more militant black critics, notably W. E. B. Du Bois and the leaders of the 1905 Niagara Movement, simply denounced Fortune as an untrustworthy, former “Afro-American agitator.”
A new generation of black leaders was appearing, and Fortune’s influence was beginning to wane. He broke with Washington and joined members of the Niagara Group in criticizing President Roosevelt’s unsubstantiated discharge of black troops following a riot in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906.
Needing Washington’s support though ideologically drawn to his detractors, Fortune faced a crossroads: his life began to disintegrate. Disillusioned and discouraged after his long efforts on behalf of black America, he separated from his wife, increased his heavy drinking, and suffered what his contemporaries described as a nervous breakdown. Washington took control of the Age in 1907 by becoming one of the principal stockholders. Later that year Fortune sold his interest in the paper to Fred R. Moore, who became the new editor. This effectively ended Fortune’s influence as a black leader.
Now a confirmed alcoholic, Fortune spent the next several years as a virtual derelict, unable to find steady employment. Desperate, he wrote a plaintive letter to Washington’s secretary in 1913 asking: “What am I to do? The Negro papers are not able to pay for extra work and the daily papers do not care for Negro productions of any kind. Under such circumstances, I face the future with $5 in hand and 57 years as a handicap.”
From time to time he found work as an editorial writer and correspondent for the Age and the Amsterdam News. He edited the Washington Sun for a few months before it folded. Slowly he recovered. In 1919 he joined the staff of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, continuing to write commentaries and editorials for the rest of his life. He became editor of Negro World, black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey’s publication, in 1923, remaining there until his death in 1928.
In “The Quick and the Dead,” an article published soon after Washington’s death, Fortune attempted to evaluate his own role as a black leader. He praised his early crusading efforts for civil rights as editor and the organizer of the Afro-American League, attributing his failure to apathy and lack of support in the black community.
Many critics agree that it was all but impossible for anyone to achieve the ambitious goals Fortune had set given the climate of the times in which he lived. And when he abandoned his militant ideology to promote Washington’s more accommodationist methods, Fortune destroyed his own credibility as a leader—and his personal integrity as well. This was something he could not live with, and it seemed to destroy him. As Emma Lou Thornbrough wrote in her biography T. Thomas Fortune: Militant Journalist, “Unable to bend as Washington had, he was broken.”