T. Thomas Fortune: Race Leader
by Leslie H. Fishel, jr.
Volume VII, Number 2
Timothy Thomas Fortune died in 1928. Through the last twenty years of his life, he was estranged from his wife, suffered sieges of mental illness, and experienced extreme poverty and loneliness. Yet even during these desperation day, he was acknowledged as the "dean of Negro journalists".1
In the late nineteenth century, Black newspapers emerged and exited with great frequency. One contemporary compiler listed a fivefold growth in the 1880's, to a high of 154 weeklies, some exercising important influence, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Black community.2 During the 1880's, the New York Globe was superseded by the New York Freeman, which was followed by the New York Age, which survived well into the twentieth century. The editor of all three papers was T. Thomas Fortune.
He was, a commentator remarked in 1891, "the most noted man in Afro-American journalism"; a recent biographer of Booker T. Washington identified Fortune as the "premier black journalist of his day". Today, his name goes unrecognized, except among the students of Black history.3
Unlike most Black editors in the Gilded Age, Fortune depended upon his newspaper and freelancing for a livelihood. Journalism was his profession. Born a slave in Florida in 1856, he learned the printing trade as a teenager and migrated to New York City in the mid-1870s. Within a few years he was editing the Globe, which he held in partnership with others. Fortune's forceful editorials attracted attention; a correspondent for the Black Cleveland Gazette claimed in 1883 that the Globe was read by Blacks and whites alike.4
Without much formal education, Fortune developed a trenchant style to fight against race discrimination and Republican condescension and for race justice and political independence. On a subject still grist for editorial mills, Fortune wrote in 1885 that New York City Blacks "suffer more injustice in the matter of rental than any other class of our citizens. They are not only forced to colonize in the worst sections of the city, and into the worst tenements, but they are charged fabulous prices. . . ."5 A decade or so later, in part to escape these repressive conditions, Blacks began their hegira to Harlem.
Struggling for political independence, Fortune flirted with Republicans, Democrats, and Prohibitionists before coming back to the GOP. His brief association with the Prohibition party saw him proclaiming that "the Rum Traffic must go", but there was a bitter aftertaste.6 Even in 1887, he was on the road to alcoholism, a cross which marred his career and scarred his life. Yet he never missed a newspaper deadline. He wrote a book in 1884, Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics in the South and a booklet in 1886, The Negro in Politics, developing his ideas on race prosperity and political independence.
Besides using a loud and literate voice in behalf of his race, Fortune founded an organization to translate words into substance. In a call for an Afro-American National League in May, 1887, he urged all local and state Black groups to federate with the League to "create public opinion", as he put it in the next issue, ". . . and to coerce politicians into taking a broader view of our grievances . . . The people," he said of Southern Blacks, "suffer in silence".7
The League was stillborn until Fortune repeated his call late in 1889, setting a date and place for the initial convention.8 Scanty in accomplishment and brief in duration, the League shriveled, to be revived again in the mid-1890's in a different format and for different purposes. Its major impact was a tribute to Fortune's vision: by planting the seed of a national protest organization, the League prepared the soil for the NAACP in the next century.
Ironically, the League had a strong and silent supporter in Booker T. Washington. "Do you want to help me with a small check. . . ?"9 Fortune asked Washington in an otherwise newsy November, 1889 letter. This relationship matured over two decades and brought together the ever-tactful, apparently accommodating Washington with the ever-challenging, always lashing Fortune. For that period, according to Washington's biographer, Fortune was "Washington's most important Northern friend". Fortune advised, sought political favors, wrote articles in Black and white papers about Washington and Tuskegee, and even tempered his own views to fit beneath Washington's umbrella. "I propose to use your good sentiments editorially," Fortune told Washington early in 1895, after receiving an account of those sentiments.10
Though misfortune seemed to follow Fortune, his contributions earn him a respected place among nineteenth century influential people. He raised Black journalism to higher levels; broke the color barrier at white newspapers; helped to shape the acknowledged Black leader's role; hammered at racial injustice in housing, recreation, politics, employment, and the courts; and, finally, fathered a prototype organization for what was to become the premier Black movement of the twentieth century. T. Thomas Fortune deserves to be remembered.
[The Thornbrough biography, cited above, has a complete bibliography. She has published a shorter essay on Fortune in John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Urbana, 1982), 19-37.]