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T. Thomas Fortune, famed journalist and civil rights leader

11/21/2013, 2:49 p.m.
Thomas Fortune

For several weeks last month, there was a stream of emails being dispatched to viewers from a group seeking to preserve a house that once belonged to the venerable T. Thomas Fortune. I am sure most recipients had no idea who the man was and what might be his claim to fame that had attracted such a devoted number of supporters.

If unknown today, Fortune at one time was one of the nation’s most distinguished and prominent journalists and civil rights leaders. In the history of African-American journalism, he is remembered for being the founder and editor of the New York Age, one of the most influential Black newspapers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

He was also instrumental in establishing the National Afro-American Council in 1898, which was a forerunner to the modern Civil Rights Movement. During his heyday, Fortune, born Oct. 3, 1856, in Jackson County, Fla., was a staunch advocate of Black political independence, and that often put him at odds with those loyal to the Republican Party.

Fortune’s political views were a product of a family steeped in activism, including his grandfather as well as his father, Emanuel, who was among that select number of Black politicians to gain elected office during the Reconstruction era. His father was elected to the Florida constitutional convention in 1868 and subsequently to the state’s lower house. But this was at a time when the Ku Klux Klan—founded three years earlier in Pulaski, Tenn., by Nathan Bedford Forest, a Confederate general determined to wreak havoc on African-Americans—forced the Fortune family to leave their residence in a small town in Florida for the larger city of Jacksonville.

The educational component of the Freedmen’s Bureau provided Fortune at least a modicum of education, and this prepared him for entry to Howard University, but after a couple of years, the lack of funds brought that pursuit to an end.

But there were two positive developments from his brief stay in the nation’s capital, because it was here he met his wife, Carrie Smiley, and where he picked up a trade as a printer working for the People’s Advocate, a Black newspaper.

Like A. Philip Randolph would do later, Fortune left Jacksonville, Fla., for New York City in 1879. Almost immediately, he was able to find work as a printer and was soon a partner in a weekly publication called The Rumor. Two years later, he became the editor and renamed it The Globe.

When The Globe ceased to function, Fortune started another newspaper, the New York Age in 1884, where he would remain until 1907. Though he worked primarily in the newspaper industry, there were many other assignments, including a trip to the Philippines in 1903 to study race and work conditions, sponsored by the U.S. Treasury Department. He was so impressed by the lack of racism and discrimination in the Philippines that he began advocating for Black Americans to consider migrating there.

His addiction to alcohol and a mental breakdown are attributed to the end of his marriage in 1906. No longer able to operate his newspaper, he sold it and for several years lived in near poverty.