T. Thomas Fortune


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(1856–1928), African American journalist and editor.

Born a slave in Marianna, Florida, T. Thomas Fortune was the son of a prominent Republican politician during Reconstruction, which enabled him to hold various patronage positions during his adolescence. He studied at Howard University, leaving after a year to pursue a career in journalism. He arrived in New York City in the early 1880s, writing for various black and white publications, most notably as the editor of the Globe. He established himself as a militant, prodding African Americans to abandon their unquestioned loyalty to the party of Lincoln. His near-endorsement of Grover Cleveland for president in 1884 led to management conflicts and the demise of the Globe, though the paper reemerged first as the Freeman and then the Age. Under his proprietorship, the Age would become the leading black paper of the era, and he would become the “most noted man in Afro-American journalism.” As one contemporary observed, “he never writes unless he makes someone wince.”

Fortune's enthusiasm for the Democrats soon waned, while his 1884 book, Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics in the South, cemented his reputation as a civil rights militant. In a typical vein, Fortune vowed, “let us agitate! Agitate! Agitate! until the protest shall awake the nation from its indifference.” He was widely condemned in the white press as a firebrand. In the early 1890s, Fortune also established the Afro-American League, an ideological precursor to the NAACP, which lapsed into inactivity after a few years.

Growing prominence brought few financial rewards for Fortune, which may have contributed to his support of Booker T. Washington after 1895. Fortune defended Washington while distancing himself from his accommodationist approach, thus lending Washington useful journalistic cover from an established militant. Fortune also acted as his ghostwriter, and Washington's subsidies to the Age and personal loans became essential to Fortune's financial survival. Increasing criticism of Washington from fellow radicals like W. E. B. Du Bois and Monroe Trotter placed Fortune in an uncomfortable position. After the turn of the century, the relationship with Washington became strained, both personally and politically, and Fortune denounced Washington's support for President Theodore Roosevelt's actions after the Brownsville affair in 1906. Marital discord and alcoholism culminated in a mental breakdown in the following year, whereupon Fortune lost control of the Age to Washington allies.

Fortune spent the next decade destitute and depressed, writing occasional columns for the Age and editing several short-lived newspapers. In 1923, Fortune assumed the position of editor of the Negro World, vacated by Marcus Garvey upon his imprisonment. Though he had opposed back-to-Africa notions and apparently never joined Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, Fortune praised the “dramatic element” in Garvey's message and his skill in securing the support of the masses. He also defended Garvey against government charges of stock fraud, and he generally shared Garvey's resentment against Du Bois and the NAACP leadership. Fortune's reputation as a journalist had recovered somewhat by the time of his death.

Emma Lou Thornbrough, T. Thomas Fortune: Militant Journalist, 1972.Shawn Leigh Alexander, ed., T. Thomas Fortune, the Afro-American Agitator : A Collection of Writings, 1880-1928, 2008.


Subjects: Literature — United States History.

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