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T. Thomas Fortune, famed journalist and civil rights leader

11/21/2013, 2:49 p.m.
T. Thomas Fortune at one time was one of the nation’s most distinguished and prominent journalists and civil rights leaders.
Thomas Fortune

By 1916, Fortune was back on his feet, regained his health and resumed writing for such periodicals and newspapers as the Norfolk Journal and Guide. In the 1920s, with the arrival of Marcus Garvey in Harlem, Fortune joined Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and by 1923, he was the editor of the organization’s Negro World. Oddly, while he was not a great advocate of separation as proposed by Garvey, he was enamored with the great Jamaican’s leadership abilities.

As editor and writer for the UNIA’s paper, Fortune was able to demonstrate his literary skills and particularly his prowess as a poet. In one memorable profile of Garvey in which his followers were waiting patiently for him to arrive to speak at Liberty Hall in Harlem, Fortune wrote: “What a tremendous thing it is to be able to inspire the love and admiration of millions of people who are not satisfied when you are gone and overwhelm you with affection and attention when you are with them. Only a few men in history have been so blessed, marked men, who have changed the map of the world. … And then, as if he had come right up out of the bottom of nowhere, Marcus Garvey appeared on the platform and faced the assembled host, clothed in the robes of his office, and the vast gathering broke into applause, which sounded like the rush of many waters.”

No wonder Fortune was deeply admired and respected by Garvey; it was this kind of soaring eloquence that endeared him to the leader and to thousands of readers both at home and abroad. In 1928, while the nation was enduring a withering depression, Fortune suffered a stroke and had to be cared for by his physician son in Philadelphia. The collapse proved fatal and he died soon after.

Much of his life can be obtained from the countless articles and editorials he wrote and from his book “Black and White: Land and Politics in the South.”

Those interested in helping to preserve the T. Thomas Fortune House, which is currently privately owned and has been vacant for the last six years—the goal of the project being to procure the building that could cost as much as $2 million—can make donations to the T. Thomas Fortune House Preservation Project c/o Red Bank Men’s Club Foundation, a 501 C-3 organization, Westside Station, P.O Box 2235, Red Bank, N.J. 07701. Contact with the project can be made via Facebook or emailing thomasfortunehouse@gmail.com or calling 312-388-2011.

Activities

  • Find out more: One helpful guide to Fortune’s legacy are his own words, which can be found in “Black and White: Land and Politics in the South,” which was reprinted by Arno Press in 1990. Tony Martin’s “Literary Garveyism” offers several citations to Fortune’s work while working as editor of the Negro World.
  • Discussion: Fortune’s life and labor provide ample opportunities to talk about the current state of Black journalism and to what degree it differs from the past and what prospects it holds for the future.
  • Place in context: Geography is fate, as several writers have noted, and Fortune began his life in the South but eventually traveled to the North. He came of age right after the Reconstruction period, and it would be good to examine what that meant for his outlook and options for a career in journalism.

This Week in Black History

  • Nov. 19, 1921: The Hall of Fame baseball player Roy Campenella, who was an MVP three times for the Brooklyn Dodgers, is born on this day in Philadelphia.
  • Nov. 20, 1910: Noted author Pauli Murray, the first Black woman Episcopal priest in the U.S., is born on this day in Baltimore, Md.
  • Nov. 21, 1865: Shaw University is founded on this day in Raleigh, N.C.