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.
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 email@example.com or calling 312-388-2011.
- 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.