T. Thomas Fortune

Sep 5th, 2011 | By | Category: Journalism & Law
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T. Thomas Fortune1856-1928  T. Thomas Fortune was an influential publisher, writer, and organizer at the turn of the 20th century. Closely associated with prominent educator and activist Booker T. Washington for a decade, he set standards for integrity and professionalism in African American journalism.

Printer’s Assistant to Publisher

Fortune was born in Marianna, Florida, on October 3, 1856, to Emanuel and Sara Jane Fortune. Only following emancipation was Emanuel free to give himself and his family a surname, which he chose believing his own father to have been an Irishman named Thomas Fortune. Originally a carpenter, Fortune’s father became active in Reconstruction politics, winning election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1868. But three years later, he and his family were forced to flee Marianna in the face of a southern movement against African Americans who exercised their civil and political rights in the south.

Fortune’s mother died when he was 11 years old. As a child, he attended school only sporadically, but gained considerable knowledge of politics and the world through his father’s political life in the state capital, Tallahassee. There, he began frequenting the offices of local newspapers, became interested in writing and journalism, and took a job as a printer’s assistant. At age 18, Fortune went north to Washington, DC, to attend law school at Howard University, where he supported himself by working at a black newspaper and earned a reputation as a talented writer.

Fortune left Howard before earning his law degree. Instead, he married his sweetheart, Carrie C. Smiley, and returned to Florida to take a teaching position while the two began a family. However, seeking better opportunities for a career in publishing, Fortune and his wife moved to New York City in 1881. On arrival, the only job he could find was with a white religious periodical, as a compositor, but it wasn’t long before he found the position he wanted. He became editor and then, in 1887, owner of a black newspaper eventually known, after several changes of name, as the New York Age. Fortune built a reputation for high journalistic standards, a refreshing lack of sensationalism, and editorials that exhibited acuity, passion, and wit. Two of his reporters, Victoria Earle Matthews and Ida B. Wells, went on to illustrious careers in journalism. While publishing the Age, Fortune became leader of the Afro-American Press Association where he worked to raise the level of the black journalistic profession throughout the United States.

Fortune’s way with words caught the eye of Booker T. Washington, the influential president of the Tuskegee Institute, and the two became close literary associates. The most significant products of their collaboration were three books published between 1899 and 1907 under Washington’s name, but partly or wholly ghostwritten by Fortune: A New Negro for a New Century, The Story of My Life and Work, and The Negro in Business. Meanwhile, Washington called on Fortune from time to time to write speeches, and helped Fortune land other assignments. This additional work helped Fortune survive and even flourish financially while keeping his sometimes shaky newspaper venture alive, although Fortune privately expressed disappointment at Washington’s refusal to acknowledge Fortune’s contributions to his intellectual and literary reputation.

Pioneer Organizer

Fortune was not only an effective journalist, but was also a pioneer social organizer. As early as 1889, at the age of 33, he was the driving force behind formation of an organization known as the National Afro-American League. The League disappeared in 1894, but it is viewed as having inspired both the Niagara Movement of W.E.B. Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Fortune remained loyal to Washington, who was often at odds with Du Bois, and refused to help lead either of the organizations. In fact, from 1902 to 1904, he headed a rival but short-lived organization, the Afro-American Council. At the vanguard of black organizing, Fortune also attended the formation of the Federation of Afro-American Women in 1895. In the names of each of the three organizations, one can detect Fortune’s literary hand at work: ever sensitive to the power of a single word, he was an early advocate of rejecting the terms “Negro” and “Colored” in favor of “Afro-American.”

Fortune’s views on the best strategy for winning civil, political, and economic equality for African Americans evolved over the years. Early in his career, despite his connections to Washington, Fortune expressed impatience with the slow but steady, self-help approach that Washington advocated. He was not afraid to take an unpopular stand: his was a lonely voice backing Frederick Douglass in 1884 when Douglass married a white woman. Later, however, Fortune concluded that Washington’s approach might be wise after all, and he moved further away from the so-called “radical” positions associated with the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois. He could be scathing in his criticism of Du Bois, and railed against the ills that he felt would result from Du Bois’ prescriptions for black education.

Fortune’s years as publisher of the Age and collaborator with Washington marked the apex of his career and influence. The year 1907 was the beginning of a downhill slide in which he fell into a deep, alcoholic depression and his marriage broke apart. Operation and ownership of the Age was wrested from him, and he spent several years in dire straits, laboring as a freelance writer. In 1923, Marcus Garvey, who himself was going through difficult times, hired him as editor of his publication Negro World. Here, Fortune remained until he passed away from heart disease on June 2, 1928, never regaining the influence he held during the first decade of the 20th century as a leader in the movement for African American rights.

By eschewing sensationalism and encouraging rigid journalistic ethics, Fortune guided the thriving new industry of African American printing and publishing into an era of respect and profitability. He is also remembered for his involvement and contribution to organizing the black rights movements of his day.


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