T. Thomas Fortune was born into slavery in Marianna, Jackson County, Florida, to Emanuel and Sarah Jane Fortune, on October 3, 1856, and was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. He started his education at Marianna’s first school for African Americans after the Civil War. 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.
Three years later, he and his family were forced to flee Marianna to Jacksonville, in the face of a white southern movement against African Americans, who exercised their civil and political rights in the south. Fortune’s mother died when he was 15 years old in 1871.
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 in Tallahassee. Originally a carpenter, Fortune’s father, Emanuel, became active in Reconstruction politics, winning election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1868. At the young age of 13, Fortune worked both as a page in the state senate and as an apprenticed printer at the Marianna Courier and later the Jacksonville Daily-Times Union. These experiences would be the start of a career wherein he would go on to have his work published in over twenty books, along with articles and more than three hundred editorials.
In 1874, he was a mail route agent and then he was promoted to customs inspector for the eastern district of Delaware, but he only held this position for a few months before resigning in order to attend Howard University to study law. He supported himself by working at a black newspaper and earned a reputation as a talented writer.
He changed to journalism after two semesters before leaving school altogether to marry his high school sweetheart, Carrie Smiley, and returned to Florida to take a teaching position while the two began a family. 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 began a process whereby over the next two decades he would become known as editor and owner of a newspaper named first: The New York Globe, The New York Freeman in 1884, and the latter of which was renamed The New York Age in 1887, and set out to become “The Afro-American Journal of News and Opinion.”
Fortune’s tenure at The New York Age for over 20 years established him as the leading African American journalist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Under his editorial direction, the paper became the nation’s most influential black paper, and was used to protest discrimination, lynching, mob violence, and disenfranchisement.
In 1884, at the age of 28, Fortune published a book entitled: “Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South.” 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, in Tuskegee, Alabama, and the two became close literary associates. 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. Fortune was not only an effective journalist, but was also a pioneer social organizer.
Fortune and Bishop Alexander Walters of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Washington, D.C established the first Afro-American League (AAL) in 1887, before changing its name, two years later, to the National Afro-American League (NAAL).
In Chicago on January 25, 1890, Fortune co-founded the militant National Afro-American League to right wrongs against African Americans authorized by law and sanctioned or tolerated by public opinion. The league fell apart after four years. It was one of the earliest equal rights organizations in the United States and a precursor of the Niagara Falls Movement and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Fortune wrote intermittently for The Amsterdam News, and for The Norfolk Journal and Guide.
The organization was revived in Rochester, New York, on September 15, 1898, it had the new name of the “National Afro-American Council“, with Fortune as President. Those two organizations would play a vital role in setting the stage for the Niagara Movement, NAACP and other civil rights organizations to follow.
Fortune was also the leading advocate of using “Afro-American” to identify his people. Since they are “African in origin and American in birth,” it was his argument that it most accurately defined them. With Fortune at the helm as co-owner with Emanuel Fortune, Jr. and Jerome B. Peterson, the New York Age became the most widely read of all Black newspapers. It stood at the forefront as a voice agitating against the evils of discrimination, lynching, mob-violence, and disenfranchisement. Its popularity was due to Fortune’s editorials which condemned all forms of discrimination and demanded full justice for all African Americans. Ida B. Wells’ newspaper, Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, had its printing press destroyed and building burned as the result of an article published in it on May 25, 1892. Fortune then gave her a job and a new platform from which to detail and condemn lynching.
In 1901, Fortune moved to Red Bank, New Jersey, where he purchased the home of Rev. C.E. Hill, on what was called Beech Street, then, for a lofty $4,000, dubbing the home Maple Hall. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places & Named a National Historic Landmark on December 8, 1976 and the New Jersey Register of Historic Places on August 16, 1979.
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.”
Early in his career, despite his connections to Washington, Fortune expressed impatience with the slow but steady, self-help approach that Washington advocated. His views on the best strategy for winning civil, political, and economic equality for African Americans evolved over the years.
He published, “Dreams of Life: Miscellaneous Poems,” in 1905. After a nervous breakdown, Fortune sold the New York Age to Fred R. Moore in 1907, who continued publishing it until 1960. 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. At its height the Negro World had circulation of over 200,000.
With distribution throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and in Central America it may have been the most widely distributed newspaper in the world at that time. During his tenure at the Negro World, Fortune rubbed shoulders with such literary luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston, W. A. Domingo, Hubert Harrison, and John E. Bruce, among others.
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 black organizing and has been said to be “The bridge to the modern day Civil Rights Movement.”
Fortune passed away from heart disease on June 2, 1928 at the age of 71 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Eden Cemetery, Collingdale, Pennsylvania, never regaining the influence he held during the first decade of the 20th century as a leader in the movement for African American rights.
Disclaimer: Information researched by Lynn Humphrey, member of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation.