Timothy Thomas Fortune
"As an American citizen, I feel it born in my nature to share in the fullest measure all that is American...feeling the full force of the fact that while we are classed as Africans, just as the Germans are classed as Germans, we are in all things American citizens. American freemen....We do not ask the American government or people for charity...We do not ask any special favor from the American government or people. But we do demand that impartial justice which is the standard reciprocity between equals." Timothy Thomas Fortune, Black and White (1884).
Timothy Thomas Fortune (10/3/1856-6/2/1928), was born a slave in Marianna, Florida, son of Emanuel Fortune, a literate slave artisan and one of two African Americans elected as delegates to the 1868 state's constitutional convention and a member of the Florida House of Representatives, and his mother, Sarah Jane Moore, a slave. Fortune was raised amid tumultuous times in Reconstruction Florida. His father was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and would flee Florida for months at a time, but remained active in Jacksonville politics into the 1890's.
With less than three years of formal education, the young Fortune, following in his father's footsteps as an intellectual and student of the world, took an interest in politics and became a page in the state senate. This experience left him with a distaste for white politicians posing as friends of blacks while using them for opportunistic purposes. He would come away with a strong dislike for the sordid Reconstruction politics. He enrolled at Howard University during the winter 1874 term. Finances forced him to leave after a year, but not before completing a number of courses in legal history and theory and working in the printshop of the People's Advocate, an early black newspaper. A voracious reader, he would constantly read throughout his life. His later writings would reflect his knowledge of history, constitutional law and government.
Briefly teaching school in Florida, he worked for the Jacksonville Daily Union as a printer and traveled to New York where he was hired by the New York Sun in 1878 and later promoted to its editorial staff as his talents as writer and journalist were recognized. For the rest of his life, he would write, edit and/or publish journals, often several at the same time.
During the 1880s, frustrated by the Democratic party's machinations and the inability of Republicans to protect their rights in the South, leading Afro-Americans called for political independence in party affiliation. Fortune articulated their grievances in editorials, articles, and several books. He castigated both major parties for their mistreatment of the freedmen. In July 1881, Fortune, George Parker, and Walter Sampson launched the New York Globe. A few months later, Fortune became editor of the New York Globe, succeeding John F. Quarles. The New York Globe and its successors, the New York Freeman and the New York Age, would establish Fortune as the dean of black journalists. Under his leadership, they were regarded as the most distinguished Afro-American (a term which Fortune coined) papers in the nation.
While editor of the New York Globe, Fortune attacked Republicans for not caring "a snap of the finger" for Negroes. He called upon blacks to form a "new honest party." In 1884 his Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics in the South, a study of contradictory threads, was published. In this study of race and racism, Fortune was influenced by the writings of Henry George (1839-1897), the proponent of the single-tax. Although Fortune criticized the United States for its brutal treatment of African Americans, he vigorously rejected back-to-Africa proposals. Fortune urged blacks and whites to reject established politics for independent voting and to understand that the future struggle in the South would be on the economic issues of "capital and labor, landlord and tenant."
In 1886 Fortune published The Negro in Politics, which accused the Republican party of contemptuous treatment of African Americans. He demanded that freedmen place their interests before party and stop following leaders who "have swallowed without a grimace every insult to their manhood." Both Black and White and The Negro in politics received wide coverage in the African-American press, but few blacks were persuaded to desert the Republican party.
Fortune's cry for political independence cost him control over the New York Globe in 1884, when Parker sold his interest and the purchaser, William Derrick, declared that the New York Globe would be a Republican paper. Fortune disagreed, and the Republican party refused to subsidize the paper until Fortune resigned. Fortune then established the New York Freeman with himself as sole owner, editor, and chief printer. African Americans had considered the Democratic party the party of bigotry, treason, and mob rule, but Fortune's warm praise of Democrat Grover Cleveland raised speculation that he was seeking a political appointment. Fortune denied this assumption and countered that Cleveland would check reactionary forces within his party. Cleveland's appointment of blacks, Fortune wrote, deserved credit, and he was ready to support him
"if the Democratic party pursues a broad, liberal and honorable course toward us" (Freeman, May 16, 1885, p. 2).This political unorthodoxy forced him for financial reasons to sell the New York Freeman in 1887 to Jerome B. Peterson and Emanuel Fortune, Jr., his brother. A week later the new owners dissolved the paper and founded the New York Age. In 1889, after Emanuel Fortune's death, he accepted the editorship of the New York Age.
Also in 1884 Fortune conceived the idea of a national organization to fight for civil and political rights of African Americans. He later suggested in a May 28, 1887 Freeman editorial that an all-black organization modeled on the Irish National League was needed. Organized in January 1890, the National Afro-American League had as its objectives
- the protection of black voters in the South;
- the end of the reign of lynch and mob rule;
- equal distribution of school funds to both races;
- eradication of chain gangs and convict leases that exploited blacks;
- the end of segregated public transportation vehicles; and
- the end of discrimination by race in hotels, inns, and theaters.
Fortune's militancy was tempered in 1895 when he allied with Booker T. Washington. Both men were southerners who shared a common interest in self-reliance and manual education. After Washington's famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech, Fortune sent him a letter of praise. Frederick Douglass had died earlier that year, and Fortune informed Washington, "We must have a leader." For the next twelve years the two were close friends, and Fortune served as a ghost writer for Washington and editorially defended him from criticisms of younger militants. Fortune's financial dependency on Washington to publish the New York Age motivated W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Boston Guardian, to criticize him for being a mouthpiece for Washington.
In 1901 Washington became an adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) on racial matters. For the next six years Washington and Fortune would continue on in an enigmatic relationship. At times Fortune would vigorously defend Washington from critics, but there were moments when he could not "reconcile his own views on race matters and politics with the accommodationist views of Washington". In 1902 his loyalty paid off when Washington arranged for him to receive an appointment as a special agent of the Treasury Department to study race and trade conditions in the Philippines. The seven-month trip cost Fortune dearly in health and finances and made him more dependent on Washington's support. The alliance between Fortune and Washington became strained when Fortune attacked Roosevelt for his indifference to the plight of mistreated southern blacks and particularly for the president's decision in 1906 to dishonorably discharge three companies of black soldiers of the Twenty-fifth Infantry stationed at Brownsville, Texas. On the night of August 13, a group of unidentified men killed one person and wounded two others in a shoot-out. The soldiers were blamed, but it was impossible to identify the culprits. None confessed, and not a single soldier offered to implicate his comrades. The black press, including the New York Age, criticized the president for his unprecedented action.
Since 1900, Fortune's alcoholism and depression had alarmed Washington. Concerned with Fortune's increasingly erratic personal and political behavior, Washington in early 1907 secretly became a major stockholder in the New York Age, and removed Fortune from the editor's position. Out of frustration, Fortune wrote to William Monroe Trotter, "Don't let up on Roosevelt and Taft. Lay it on them thick, as usual." For the next three years Fortune drank heavily and suffered bouts of depression that caused his friends to worry about his mental stability. His 1877 marriage to Carrie C. Smiley with his family of five children ended in separation.
Fortune's health appeared to be restored by 1910, and Washington, believing that he had been sufficiently humbled, organized a testimonial for him and returned him to the New York Age's editorship in 1911. Fortune left the New York Age in 1914 because debts kept him in dire financial straits. Following Washington's death the next year, Fortune belatedly reflected that he had more in common with the militancy of Frederick Douglass than with Washington and would have been better off if he never developed such a close relationship with the educator.
Fortune drifted in and out of writing assignments for the next nine years while he suffered from depression and alcoholism. Fortune wrote intermittently for The Amsterdam News and The Norfolk Journal and Guide. He also served as an editor of Marcus Garvey's Negro World, and in 1923 he assumed the editorship of Negro World. Although he did not accept Garvey's emigration proposal, nor did he join the Universal Negro Improvement Association, he admired Garvey for his ability to mobilize the masses. For a time he returned to his earlier militancy, urging his readers to eschew political dependency. Later, after Garvey organized a Negro Political Union and instructed his followers to vote for Calvin Coolidge, Fortune, mindful that his anti-Roosevelt editorials had cost him favor, wrote no dissenting views about Coolidge's presidency.
When Fortune died in Philadelphia, the Negro World (June 9, 1928) eulogized him as one
"who quite as much as Frederick Douglass, perhaps a little more than Booker T. Washington and less than Marcus Garvey, has been a healthful factor in the lives and fortunes of the Negro race in this generation."He was a precursor to the civil rights movement. Fortune called for black pride and unity. Years before the freedom rides, sit-ins, and demonstrations, Fortune called for organization and agitation.
As Emma Lou Thornbrough says in her insightful essay, "T. Thomas Fortune: Militant Editor in the Age of Accommodation" (p. 19):
"Before he was thirty years old Timothy Thomas Fortune was widely acclaimed as the most able and influential black journalist of his times and was seen by some as a possible successor to Frederick Douglass. As an editor in New York toward the end of the nineteenth century, he sought to use the press as a vehicle for mobilizing black public opinion to support his militant ideology and for establishing himself as spokesman for and defender of the rights of Afro-Americans in the South as well as in the North. He viewed political action as necessary for achieving his ideological goals as well as an instrument for fulfilling his own personal aspirations. He also conceived of a national organization as a means of carrying out his aims and led in the formation of the National Afro-American League. His political ambitions were thwarted as were his hopes for the League, and in later years his reputation as a militant and uncompromising champion of the rights of blacks was compromised by his ties with Booker T. Washington, with whom his career became inextricably linked. This seeming paradoxical relationship between the two men grew out of the interest that each had in furthering his own career as well as out of mutual respect and affection. But as Washington's prestige and power grew, Fortune's influence and reputation declined."